Thirteen Days With an iPhone 6s Plus

On iPhone pre-order day, I lost my mind for a few minutes and decided it would be a good idea to order the gargantuan iPhone known as the 6s Plus.

The iPhone 6s Plus

I named it Hercules, because, well, it’s a hoss.

My friends who also use a 6/6s Plus told me to give it at least a week or two. It’s been 13 days, and I’m still not sure about it.

There are some things which I love about the phone. Namely: the superior mechanics for photography and videography, and the bigger screen real-estate. But I am not yet convinced that the tradeoff for those things — having a device that is unwieldy at best when using it with one hand — is worth it.

That said, here are some miscellaneous thoughts and observations about the iPhone 6s Plus.

Battery Life

For me, at least, this isn’t an issue. But it’s not because the Plus has made it a non-issue, it’s just that battery life has never been an issue for me with any iPhone I’ve owned.

Maybe my old 3GS would get into the red sometimes, but honestly I can’t remember the last time I had an iPhone that I had to regularly keep charged throughout the day.

I know people who say their iPhone has a dead battery by lunchtime, but I just don’t have a grid for that. So, the advantage of the better battery life of the 6s Plus is (unfortunately?) wasted on me.

Image Stabilization

The in-body image stabilization is pretty awesome.

Maybe its placebo, maybe not, but in the week and a half I’ve had this new iPhone, it definitely seems to contain a noticeably superior camera to my iPhone 6.

Here are two cute photos I’ve taken on the 6s Plus:

At the park -- Shot with the iPhone 6s Plus

Story Time -- Shot with the iPhone 6s Plus

These don’t really show off just how great the camera of the 6s Plus is, but they are photos of my family so I think they’re awesome.

For a much better comparison of the in-body image stabilization, check out this video that shows a side-by-side comparison of shooting video with the image-stabilized 6s Plus and the non-stabilized 6s.

Screen Density

In addition to having a larger screen, the Plus also has a higher pixel density.

As for the pixel density, even when side-by-side with my iPhone 6 I can’t see the difference between the two phones. So while it’s a cool feature on paper that makes a good reason to get the bigger phone, it’s not actually relevant in day-to-day life. At least, not for me.

The larger screen is definitely nice for a lot of things. Such as editing photos in VSCO Cam, browsing the web in Mobile Safari, reading in Instapaper or Kindle or the News app, typing, and more.

The iPhone 6s Plus

3D Touch

This new tech is awesome. Apps that support 3D Touch from the Home screen are instantly more useful. OmniFocus’s “New Inbox Item” action is one of my favorites (aside from the Camera app’s Selfie shortcut, of course). As I was writing this, Fantastical just shipped an update to support 3D Touch. So now I’m just hoping Simplenote will add shortcuts for creating a new note and searching.

And then there’s Trackpad Mode. Which is awesome.

Here are John Gruber’s sentiments about the new feature:

This might be the single best new feature for text editing on the iPhone since the addition of selection and Copy/Paste in iOS 3 in 2009. In addition to moving the insertion point around, you can press again and switch to selection mode — like double-clicking the mouse button on a Mac. Trackpad mode is a once-you’ve-used-it-you-can’t-go-back addition to iOS.

Agreed. This is the thing you demo to your friends about why getting the new iPhone 6s is worth it.

The Home Button (Literally)

That’s what it’s always been called, but that is literally what it is now.

It used to be that if you clicked the Home button while the screen was off then you’d see the Lock screen. But Touch ID is so ridiculously fast now that clicking the Home button is simultaneous with unlocking the iPhone.

This is both awesome and frustrating.

It’s awesome because the added level of security that Touch ID brings is anything but a burden. In fact, it’s now faster and easier to unlock your iPhone using Touch ID than it is to swipe with no security passcode at all.

Think about that. Having a more secure phone is also more convenient in day-to-day use.

However, the frustrating part of Touch ID’s speed is, ironically, that it makes it harder to get to the Camera app.

There are two ways to get around this. One way is to press the Home button with a finger that’s not registered with Touch ID. The other way is to press the Lock / Wake button. Alas, both of these options leave you in a spot that’s not easy to slide up on the Camera app icon that’s down in the bottom-right-hand side of the screen. On the 6s this wouldn’t be as much of an issue because it’s easier to hit the Lock / Wake button while still holding the phone comfortably. But for me, my thumb literally can’t reach the Lock / Wake button while holding the 6s Plus comfortably with one hand.

The iPhone 6s Plus

That Super Cool Wallpaper is via the Super Cool Unsplash.

Daily usage

The iPhone 6s Plus works best when you’re in a calm and controlled environment. Such as the couch, or at your desk. Basically anywhere that you’re stationary and have both hands free. In this context the Plus is awesome.

It is extremely easy to hold and use with two hands. Typing on the larger-but-not-too-large keyboard is fantastic. And the bigger screen is an excellent size for Instapaper, Twitter, Instagram, Day One, VSCO Cam, the News, Safari, and more.

As many other iPhone 6 Plus users have said before, with the larger iPhone, there’s not a huge need for an iPad mini. Slowly, over time, you realize the Plus is big enough for most of situations when you would have used the smaller iPad, and so you actually don’t need both devices.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of my writing on the iPad. And from time to time I enjoy reading comic books. For the evening reading and research that I often do with the iPad, while I could see the iPhone 6s Plus taking over that role, the iPad is still a bit better suited to it.

Where the iPhone 6s Plus does not shine is when you’re out and about. Walking through the grocery store, pushing a shopping cart, wrangling two toddler boys, and trying to check-off items on your shopping list app is not the ideal environment for using the 6s Plus with one hand. I’ve quickly learned how to push a shopping cart with just my elbows.

In short, for me, the 6s Plus is equal parts wonderful and terrible. There are some people who find the size to be just right, and so they have no sense of trade-offs with the device. But it is just too large for me to comfortably use as a hand-held phone.

The question is: Are the advantages of the Plus worth the disadvantages? A lot of people say absolutely. Some still say no way.

For me, I’m honestly still undecided. I’ll have to give it another 13 days.

What’s Your Minimum Effective Dose?

You’ve no-doubt heard of the Law of the Vital Few. It’s the 80/20 rule, which states that roughly 80-percent of the results come about from just 20-percent of the energy.

What if you took your 80-percent results and applied the 80/20 rule to them? And then one more time?


What you end up with is the idea that your initial 1-percent of energy spent brings about the first 50-percent of results.

That 1-percent of energy spent reaps a dispraportionate result. Tim Ferris calls it the Minimum Effective Dose.

In his book, The One Thing, Gary Keller writes that “success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.”

If there was one thing you could do that represented roughly 1-percent of your time and energy. And if that one thing was a cause for the intial half of the results you’re seeking. Then it’s safe to say that it’s a good idea to keep on doing that one thing.

Step back for a moment and take stock of one area of your life that you want to improve. Perhaps it’s your health, your inner personal life, your relationship with your spouse or kids, your job, your finances, or your free time.

Looking at that area, you probably see right away the 1,000 things you wish were different and that you know you should change. But when you’re staring 1,000 important things in the face, you’ve no idea which one to start with. It’s totally overwhelming.

Which is why you need that Minimum Effective Dose.

Think again about that area of your life where you’d love to see change. What is one thing you could do that would have a disproportionate result compared to anything else you did?

Want to get in shape? Try walking for 30 minutes per day. Want to improve your marriage? Compliment your spouse every day. Want to get out of debt? Focus on paying off your smallest debt first to get it out of the way. Want to feel more recharged after the weekend? Read a book for 30 minutes before binge watching Netflix. Want to advance your career? Find someone new to have lunch with every week and ask them what you can do to help them.

These things in and of themselves will not revolutionize your life over night. But the power is in their simplicity and their do-ability. And once these things get into place as part of your day-to-day lifestyle then they create a momentum that you can ride as you incorporate new activities. For example, you start out just walkling for 30 minutes. And then you begin to jog for a while at first and then walk the rest of the way. Until pretty soon you’re jogging the full half-hour, and more…

But that’s not all. The other advantage to defining a Minimum Effective Dose is the simplification it brings.

Knowing the single most important thing you can do is liberating.

It simplifies your life because you know what it is you need to do, every day. Which, in turn, helps you know what you don’t need to do. You have just one task, one activity, one way to spend your energy. Go do it. Because the value in small things done consistently over time cannot be underestimated.

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For further reading

Who, What, Why, How, and How Much

Consider the components to a creative business (or any business, really), and here’s what you get:

Who, What, Why, How, and How Much.

  • Who is your (ideal) customer or client.
  • What is the product or service you’re creating or providing.
  • How is a combination of your resources as well as your business plan (as in: how are you going to do the work, and how are you going to connect your product with your customer).
  • How Much relates to the value you’re providing to your customer as well as the price you’re charging them.
  • Why relates to the motivation, vision, and values of the work you do.

Two sidebars before we get started:

  1. This doesn’t just have to relate to indie entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs. It can relate to in-house designers, freelance developers, and more. Say you work for a design firm or a recording studio. Your “who” is your boss — your company. Your “How Much” is your salary.
  2. I used to think you had to start with why. But as I’ve been reading through Cal Newport’s book, I’m realizing that most of us start with what. In fact, Newport argues that you starting with why is actually bad advice. In short, it’s in the process of doing the work that we get much-needed experience and clarity about the sort of work we want to keep on doing, and in that process we are able to build up the relationships and resources we need in order to do the work that matters most to us.

That said, let’s break down the Who, What, Why, and How Much a bit more. I’m going to use The Focus Course as my example.

  • Who: My ideal customer for the Focus Course is someone who is eager to learn, do their best creative work, and has energy to move the needle forward in their life. Though I created the course so just about anyone can work through the 40 days of assignments, the person I most have in mind is someone who already has an internal drive to make changes in their life.

  • What: A self-guided, 40-day course that gives you insight and clarity into your values, goals, stress points, and distractions and then gives you an action plan for doing something about it all.

  • How: I built the course itself by writing every day, working with a pilot group to test and review the contents, and then working with a designer and developer to create the website that hosts the content.

  • How much: The price of the Focus Course is $249; the value, though it varies from person to person, is (I hope) much, much more than that.

  • Why: I’m someone who is naturally spontaneous, distracted, and seems to always have more ideas than time. In my early 20s I realized that I needed to get a grip on how I spent my time and energy or else I’d never make meaningful progress on the things that were most important to me. The ideas and tactics of The Focus Course are things that I myself have used and taught for more than a decade and I wanted to create a fun and even better way way to clearly teach these things to others.

Here’s a sketch I made (don’t laugh) to show how these elements interrelate with one another to form the components of a sustainable business.

Business Components

As you can see in the chart above, when your product and your customer connect, then value is created and exchanged. It’s at this intersection that your business model exists. You have something of value to offer, and others are willing to pay for it.

Additionally, if your product or service is something that aligns with your own personal values and goals, then when you sell to your customer you’re also giving expression to your vision.

There is immense satisfaction in providing something of value to someone else in such a manner that also sustains the ongoing providing of more value. Consider the converse: when our work and actions don’t align with our vision and values, it can be a huge drain on our morale and motivation.

This is what a sustainable business model is all about: doing work you’re proud of, providing value to others, and having a means to continue doing that work. It’s what Walt Disney meant when he famously said, “We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.”

The money serves a two-fold purpose. For one, it gives some measure of validation to our work because money is a neutral indicator of value. If nobody (as in, literally not one person) is willing to pay for what it is you’re offering, then it’s probably not valuable enough (at least not yet). When that’s the case, simply go back to the drawing board to find a different expression of your creative idea or find a different market (or maybe both).

For his book, So Good They Can’t ignore You, Cal Newport interviewed successful entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. Newport asked Sivers about what it was that led to his entrepreneurial success. Derek replied that he has a principle about money that overrides his other rules: ”Do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”

Derek Sivers — By aiming to make money you are aiming to be valuable

Secondly, money allows us to buy food, pay the bills, and acquire the tools and resources we need in order to keep making art and doing work.

The whole goal of Walt Disney’s movie making business model was to sustain their creative outlet of animating and producing films. It wasn’t about the money for money’s sake — it was about doing work they loved and enriching the lives of their audience. And by selling their work they could keep on making more movies.

For most makers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the creative work. There is (most days) joy in the journey and satisfaction in being part of a creative community. And there is the dream of adding value and enriching other people’s lives.

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Again, from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport writes that “people who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”

While there are many dynamics which contribute to the feeling of a career that matters, one of them is the realization that the work you do is valuable to others. As Sivers said, by aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.

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Further Reading

What Would Your Ideal Workspace Look Like?

Steve Jobs Workspace




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A few weeks ago I wrote about Whole Brain Creativity, and how each of us have different learning and thinking styles.

And, as Cynthia Ulrich Tobias writes about in her book, The Way They Learn, we each have our own preferences for an ideal and productive work/learning environment.

The ideal elements of our best work space go far beyond the gear on our desk. It also includes the temperature of the room, the way it is lighted, how comfortable or not the chairs are, if we are hungry or not, if there is background noise/music or not, and more.

For me, even if I have 4 hours of interruption-free time and all the right tools are at my disposal, if the room I’m working in has an uncomfortable chair and is too cold, then it will be nearly impossible for me to concentrate.

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I am a staunch proponent for making it a routine to do our best creative work every day. Quantity leads to quality, and showing up everyday helps us overcome procrastination and build a “creative habit”.

Why not show up every day to a work environment that is conducive to doing our best creative work? A space that serves us, inspires us, helps us, and gets out of our way and allows us to concentrate.

It seems obvious in hindsight, but oftentimes it’s the low-hanging fruit of things just like this that we take for granted.

My Ideal Workspace

Several weeks ago as I was thinking about this, I decided to write out what my ideal workspace would actually look like.

I didn’t let myself get caught up in the practical limitations of how all the elements would go together in reality. I just wrote down individual components that I wanted — things I knew would be awesome and helpful.

Here’s my list:

  • A huge, huge tabletop. Like 150-square-feet big. 5 feet deep and 30 feet wide. It has to be big because it has multiple “spaces” on it. One area for a computer and keyboard. Another area for spreading out books and notebooks for research. And yet with still enough space left over so that there’s a clean space somewhere. In short, big enough to spread out without taking over everything.
  • I could work either sitting or standing.
  • Speakers and music.
  • There is space for other people to work as well, but they don’t work there all the time. I need some hours every day to work alone and in concentration, but I also want to have hours every day where I am working with others and collaborating.
  • Lots and lots of natural light, with bright-yet-warm lamps and ceiling lights.
  • The view outside is of something spectacular — mountains, ideally — and there aren’t people walking by the windows to distract. But the office itself is just a short walk from a downtown area where there are coffee shops, restaurants, parks, and people.
  • Tall ceilings to allow space for big ideas and wildly creative thinking.
  • Fantastic coffee with non-generic coffee mugs.
  • A conversation-starting brown leather couch that’s ideal for reading, sipping on a drink, and taking napping.
  • Bookshelves, drawers, and plenty of other storage so that everything can have a place while also being easily accessible.
  • Beautiful and inspirational artwork and photography.
  • Lots of whiteboards so ideas are never in want of a space to get fleshed out.
  • Super fast internet that never goes down.

As I read though that list I can get a vivid picture of what a space like this would look like. It has the vibe of a master woodworker’s shop, but with the amenities and tools of a pixel pusher. It’s a place for thinking, relaxing, collaborating, and crafting.

But for some people, a large, open, and bright space like the one I’ve described sounds terrible. They’d prefer a smaller, quieter, more cozy room with walls painted deep and warm colors, and just a lamp. For others, their ideal work environment is free from the distractions of the Internet. And I’m sure a good percentage of folks would be happy to never see another white board in their life.

Will I ever have a work environment like the one outlined above? Maybe. I hope so. But identifying the elements of my ideal workspace isn’t just about a pie in the sky dream. It also gives me clues about what changes I can make to my current workspace.

For example, in my small downstairs den, I don’t have a spot for even one giant whiteboard. So maybe I should consider getting one of those kraft paper wall mounted rollers as a stand in.

And while I don’t have a 150-square-foot tabletop, I do have both a desk and a coffee table and I bet I could find a larger coffee table.

What does your ideal work environment look like?

Just because your company issued you a 3×5 desk, a semi-adjustable chair, and a room full of florescent lights and distractions, it doesn’t mean that is the ideal work environment for you.

What does your ideal work environment look like?

Is it open and collaborative, or is it cozy and personal? Music or silence? Coffee, tea, water, nothing at all?

Think to the last time you were deeply focused and concentrating on something enjoyable…

Where were you? What was your posture like? Were you eating or drinking anything? Were you at a desk, on the couch, on the floor, outside? Was there any music or other sounds? Were you alone, or were other people around?

The way you default to concentrating when you are doing something enjoyable can give you some insight into how you may best be able to concentrate when doing all of your work.

Make changes so as to have an ideal-as-possible work environment. So that way, when you show up to do your best creative work, you’re giving yourself as many advantages as possible.

Thoughts on Annual iPhone Upgrades

This year I decided to buy an unsubsidized iPhone so I could save a bit of cash on my monthly wireless bill, and so that I could own my iPhone.

But, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that’s the best route after all.

Over on Lifehacker, Whitson Gordon crunched some numbers comparing the cost of a new phone to the value lost over 1, 2, 3, and 4 years. In short, if you’re holding onto your iPhone for 2-3 years in order to save money on upgrades, it’s actually not that much money saved compared to just buying a new model and selling your old model year over year.

This, of course, assumes that you are selling your old phones when you buy a new one.

However, nowadays, all the wireless carriers are making it much more difficult to buy a subsidized iPhone (which is why I decided to go with unsubsidized).

If you’re able to wrangle your carrier into selling you a subsidized iPhone, or you’re willing to just buy one unsubsidized, then you can rest easy to know that you’re spending about 1/2 as much compared to leasing your iPhone.

But, that’s only if you’re selling your year-old hardware on Craigslist or eBay. Which has become a challenge these days.

And thus, for those of us who don’t like to hassle with selling our iPhones on Craigslist / eBay, we trade it in to Gazelle. But Gazelle doesn’t pay as well (because they have to make a profit as well) and thus your net expense of ownership goes up.

And then there is another thing to consider: with Apple now also offering their iPhone leasing/upgrade program, it makes me wonder if the resale value of an iPhone will go down in the coming years. I suspect a lot of people will prefer to pay $32.41 or more per month and just trade in their previous iPhone in order to upgrade every year.

Here’s another way to think of it: a base-model iPhone 6 costs $649 unsubsidized. If you buy it, keep it in pristine condition, and then sell it one year later, you’ll get as much as $450 on eBay or Craigslist, or as little as $320 on Gazelle.

In that scenario, you’ve spent between $200 – $330 to use your iPhone for a year.

If you were to use that same iPhone for a year, except this time go through the Apple Upgrade plan, it would cost you $389 ($32.41 x 12).

And so, while Apple’s Upgrade Program is $60 more expensive at best, it also comes with Apple Care, and you don’t have to worry about keeping your device in pristine condition in order to get maximum resale value from it at the end of the annual upgrade cycle.

From where I’m sitting, if you like to upgrade every year, if you’re not ultra-thrifty, if you don’t care about keeping your old hardware, and if you like to pay for convenience, then Apple’s Upgrade program actually sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

What Does Opportunity Look Like?

Scott Belsky wrote an article a while back about how to find your Work Sweet Spot.

Your Work Sweet Spot is where you will have the greatest job fulfillment and satisfaction as well where you will give the greatest contribution to the field and provide the most value.

This sweet spot is found at the intersection of (1) your natural interests and preferences, (2) your skills and expertise, and (3) your opportunity stream.

Scott Belsky — The Work Sweet Spot

Belsky writes:

Over the years, I have met many creative leaders and entrepreneurs that have made an impact in their respective industries. No surprise, they love what they do. But when I ask probing questions about their career paths, it becomes clear that their good fortunes were not predestined. Aside from lots of hard work, great creative careers are powered by an intersection of three factors: Genuine Interest, Skills, and Opportunity.

The same thinking applies to successful creative projects. The magic happens when you find the sweet spot where your genuine interests, skills, and opportunity intersect.

Your interest and preferences are the things you are naturally drawn toward. How are you wired, what fascinates you, what do you daydream about?

Your skills are the things you’re talented at. For some it’s math, for others it’s art, or project planning, or counseling, or playing sports.

Ned Herrmann, author of The Creative Brain, and the man behind the Whole Brain model writes that: “To prefer something is to be drawn to it, to have a taste for it. Competency has to o with acquired knowledge and professional experience.”

Herrmann also writes that “true mastery in a specific domain can only be achieved in those areas that converge with our preferences.”

But mastery alone is not enough to have successful impact in that area. Now, of course, not everyone wants to have successful impact. But if you do, then you need opportunities to contribute to something bigger.

Which is why I want to unpack a bit more about what Scott Belsky calls the Opportunity Stream:

The third factor that plays into every successful career is opportunity. Unfortunately, this is often where we get stuck, discounting the potential opportunities that surround us as inadequate. There is no such thing as equal access to opportunity. Old boy networks and nepotism run rampant in all industries. And most opportunities are entirely circumstantial. As such, you must simply define “opportunity” as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest. Opportunity is less about leaps forward and more about the slow advance. Most folks I meet recall their greatest opportunities as chance conversations. This is why personal introductions, conferences, and other networking efforts really pay off. Just surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your “opportunity stream” – the chance happenings that lead to actions and experiences relevant to your genuine interests.

What does opportunity look like?

Belsky defines opportunity as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest.

As Belsky also says, these opportunities are usually slow advances. They are the little things that, in the moment, may seem inconsequential, but in hindsight prove to have been kairos moments.

Benjamin Franklin said that, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”

Here are a few examples of actions or experiences that can bring you a step closer to your genuine interest, and ideas for how to find and create more actions and experiences.

  • Build and Foster Relationships: By far and away, the best “stream” for opportunity is with the people you know. They say if you’re out of sight you’re out of mind; and the opposite is true as well.

    Do you know what your most important relationships are right now? What are you doing to foster genuine relationships with people who are in the same area you are interested in?

  • Meet New People:Go to conferences. Go to local meet-ups. Introduce yourself to someone. Send encouraging emails to people that also offer a nugget of value to that person. And repeat. Keep fostering, maintaining, and building relationships.

    As I wrote a while back when I attended my first Macworld conference:

    I’m not here as a journalist with the goal of covering this Apple-centric event so much as I am here to meet the Mac nerds I am privileged to work alongside all year long.

    A handshake and a “nice to meet you” is worth so much more than an @reply. A conversation over a cup of coffee is better than two dozen emails.

  • Encourage the People You Already Know: In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that social support is our single greatest asset when it comes to success in “nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and in particular, our jobs, careers, and business,” and that random acts of kindness (such as encouraging others) are one of the most significant ways we can boost social support and, in turn, increase our own happiness.

    Achor writes:

    When we have a community of people we can count on — spouses, family, friends, colleagues — we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose. Furthermore, the effect on our happiness, and therefore on our ability to profit from the Happiness Advantage, is both immediate and long-lasting.

    Achor has conducted many studies and tests at different companies where employees were tasked with writing a 2-minute email to someone in their social support network (a friend or family member) as the first thing before they began their work day. They did this every day for 21 days, the result was a noticeable increase in employee happiness which, in turn, increased productivity, creativity, resiliency, confidence, learning skills, energy, and motivation.

    And in an article entitled “Pay It Forward“, Karen McGrane wrote:

    Not everything in our professional lives is a transaction, scrutinized and evaluated against how much it costs us, how much someone should pay. Not every teaching relationship must be formalized—a mentoring opportunity, a coach, an internship. Not every investment of time has to be “worth it.” Sometimes you just have a brief conversation with someone because—why not? You never know what will come of it.

  • Practice and Improving at Your Skill: They say opportunity finds you working. And while there is (obviously) a lot of value in the opportunity stream itself, you also need to be prepared. And so, yes, do something every day that will bring you a step closer to your genuine interest. But also do something every day that will help you improve your skills, competency, or knowledge in that area.

  • Show Up Every Day: Another way to increase your stream of opportunity is to do your best creative work every day and share it with others. If your genuine interest is technology, then what is one thing you can do every day that will increase the activity happening around that topic for you?

  • Create Opportunities for Others: Become awesome at word of mouth marketing for the people, products, and services you find great value in.

    For example: I often get emails from readers who are wanting to build a website and are in need of a designer / developer. They ask me if I have a recommendation, and naturally I tell them about the people I know and have worked with in the past.

    Don’t shy back from introducing people to one another, or from introducing your friends and social network to great products or services.

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Again, as Belsky wrote, simply surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your Opportunity Stream. Get around other people; go to more events; encourage people more frequently; provide value to others.

When I wrote about building better defaults, this is exactly the sort of application I had in mind.

What is one action or experience you can do today that will move you one step closer to your genuine interest?

Books for September

Looking for something awesome to read this month? Here are two suggestions. One to learn from and one to kick back with.

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People Over Profit By Dale Partridge

People Over Profit is an excellent book about running a business and building a brand that values people and ethics more than the bottom line. The premise is easy enough to understand: if you build a company where values such as honesty, generosity, courage, and quality are built into the fabric of your business model then success will almost certainly follow.

It’s easy to read the cliffnotes and be like, oh yeah, I get that. But do you? Really?

Dale has done an excellent job at outlining just why the values of people, truth, transparency, authenticity, quality, generosity, and courage are so important. And also how these things can impact your business model, company culture, and your brand.

The chapters on transparency, quality, and courage especially hit home for me. Transparency because I believe I have some areas that I can be more transparent with my readership and my team. Quality because the whole chapter was like the thesis statement from my own book, Delight is in the Details. And the courage chapter because it offers a lot of insight into a topic that I’ve been researching a lot lately: how fear can keep us back from doing our best creative work.

One of the many quotes that stood out to me from the book is this:

Business is really just the act of stewarding a series of relationships.

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The Martian By Andy Weir

I read The Martian while during vacation last Christmas and I couldn’t put it down. If you’re not familiar with the premise, it’s about an astronaut, Mark Watney, who gets stranded on Mars after a 4-man mission goes wrong and has to survive with very limited supplies.

The movie comes out in a few months, but why wait to watch it when you can read the book now? (I’ve also heard that the audiobook version of The Martian is fantastic.)

Relatedly, the author, Andy Weir, recorded a podcast with James Altucher a while back. He shares about how The Martian was written and how in his attempts to give away the book, the Kindle version accidentally became a best seller on Amazon and led to the book and movie deal.

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Also Worthwhile

  • The Sketchnote Workbook: This book is actually far deeper than just a workbook to help you improve your sketchnoting chops. As Mike Rohde lays out in the very beginning, sketchnoting is about ideas, not art; it’s about listening to ideas, analyzing them, and finding the ones that resonate. (More on this topic tomorrow.) The workbook gives insight, instruction, and opportunity for ideation, creating idea maps, planning, documenting, and more. Even if you’re not “artistic”, there is much wisdom to glean just about the overall initial stages of the creative process.

  • Just yesterday I started reading In Pursuit of Elegance. One chapter in and I’m already pumped about it. Matthew E. May covers seven design lessons: (1) What isn’t there can often trump what is; (2) The simplest rules create the most effective order; (3) Limiting information creates intrigue; (4) Subtraction and restraint promote customer co-created value; (5 Limited resources are the very source of sustainable innovation; (6) Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing; and (7) “Break” is an important part of any breakthrough.

Whole Brain Creativity

Are you a right-brain person or a left-brain person?

Right brain folks are more artistic, feeling, intuitive, and creative — they like to find solutions by making connections and trusting their intuition. Left brain folks are more rational and logical — they like order, data, facts, guarantees, and reliability.

But there is more than just left-brain or right-brain types of people. There are actually four types of thinking (or learning) styles.

The two researchers in this are that I’m most familiar with are Ned Herrmann and Anthony Gregorc. Gregorc created what he calls the Mind Styles Model. Herrmann created what he calls Whole Brain Thinking.

If you break the two hemispheres down even further, as Ned Herrmann, Anthony Gregorc, and many others have done, then you get the four quadrants of the brain. Each of us has a dominant quadrant that we think and learn from — a way of thinking and percieving the world that is most natural to us. But each of us can use all four quadrants.

Herrmann - Whole Brain Thinking

Herrmann uses colors to define the four quadrants: Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow. Gregorc’s quadrants each have a name based on the way people percieve and order information: Abstract Sequential, Concrete Sequential, Abstract Random, and Concrete Random.

Gregorc’s AS, CS, AR, and CR quadrants corrolate to Herrmann’s Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow quadrants pretty easily.

  1. Blue (Abstract Sequential) is where logical, analytical, and technical thinking happens. Blue thinkers are the ones making sure we don’t value form over function because they are rational and care about performance and analytics. They are objective, thorough, quantitative and technical. They’ve probably got a mental calculator ready to go, which is why they tend to be engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

  2. Green (Concrete Sequential) is where people are detailed, organized, administrative, reliable, and structured. They are tactical, and tend to be project managers, bookkeepers, and administrators because they value control, structure, reliability, and tradition.

  3. Red (Abstract Random) is where you find emotional, expressive, interpersonal, and spiritually-minded people. They are compassionate, perceptive, and sensitive. They care deeply about people, and they have the ability to read the emotional temperture of a room right when they walk in. They tend to be teachers, trainers, charity workers, and musicians so they can help others and frequenly connect on a personal level in and through their career.

  4. Yellow (Concrete Random) is where creative, artistic, and conceptual thinking happen. These people are usually visionary and risk taking and tend to become entrepreneurs, artists, and strategists. They value spontenaity, risk, beauty, design, and fun. They are also excellent at recognizing patters, and have a strong ability to form connections between two or more seemingly contrasting ideas.

If you’re at all familiar with these (and other) styles, then you know that I’m grossly oversimplifying the science behind these things. And I bet Gregorc and Herrmann wouldn’t be too happy with me comparing their two models so closely. (But I can’t help it. I’m a strong Yellow thinker, so I like connecting ideas and finding patterns.)

But I’m not here to do a deep dive on the science of learning, thinking, etc.

What strikes me about the whole brain model is that it highlights the different joys and challenges of creativity.

Each of us are dominant in one of these four quadrants. You, dear reader, have some strength and some weakness of all four quadrants of learning and thinking style, but one of them is your most dominant. Do you mostly thrive on: Facts and logic? Form and Safety? Feelings and relationships? Or future ideas and concepts?

However, for us to do our best creative work — work that matters — we have to operate out of all four quadrants.

Operating out of all four quadrants looks different for everyone because everyone has one or two quadrants that they are strongest in and then a few quadrants they are weaker in.

If you are a strong “Yellow” thinker, then having visionary creative solutions is probably a natural part of your everyday life. But you may have trouble when it comes time to execute on your ideas.

Or if you are a strong “Green” thinker, then you can whip up a plan while the coffee is still brewing. But you may have trouble seeing the big picture, or understanding it’s significance.

We will always naturally operate out of our dominant quadrant. But our best creative work must flow out of all four quadrants. We need to have a desire to problem solve (Blue), we need to have enough structure and organization in order to show up every day (Green), we need to have empathy and emotion toward others and a desire to help them (Red), and we need care about creating and making (Yellow).

In addition to our own individual need to think and work using all four quadrants, we can also benefit greatly from having people around us who are dominant in different areas. If you are a strong red thinker, then get someone who is blue to work beside. While you may have friction at first (you will see them as being cold and calculating; they will see you as being too talkative and sentimental), you will actually bring some healthy balance to one another and make more progress as a team.

The challenge is to operate out of the areas of our brain that don’t come naturaly to us. Are your creative solutions intuitive? Do they solve a problem? Are you able to show up every day and do the work? Are you trying to serve and delight others?

To do work that matters, answering ‘yes’ to just one or even two of these is not enough.

In the same way that our best creative work flows from all four quadrants, it must also flow to all four quadrants for it to be effective in reaching others.

Building Better Defaults

As you know, I’ve been working for myself from home for over four years. And even still, I’m terrible at estimating how much time I need to spend on a particular task.

At first, my bad time estimations would frustrate drive my wife. She’d ask me how long until I was done working and I’d think about how I had just three more emails left in my inbox and how I could probably get them triaged in 5 minutes. But then an hour would go by…

Fortunately my wife has learned to take my time estimations and quadruple them. Because I still frequently overestimate what I can get done in a short amount of time. And, like many others, I also tend to underestimate what I can accomplish over an extended season.

It’s a backwards problem. Not only does it put all the emphasis on “how much” I can do today — it also means I get frustrated when I can’t get everything done that’s on my massive, never-ending, to-do list.

When my emphasis is on today’s quantity of tasks accomplished, it leads me to de-value the little actions that have great impact over time. The little things that ultimately lead to incremental yet consistent progress and thus accomplishing a lot over an extended season.

If you know anything about investing you know it’s far better to invest $100 every month for 30 years then to invest $36,000 all at once three decades from now.

Assuming an 8% rate of return, if you invested a mere $100/month for 30 years then your investment would be worth $135,939.

However, if you waited until the very end of those 30 years and then tried to invest all $36,000 at once then your investment would be worth exactly that: $36,000. You’d miss out on $100,000 worth of compounding interest. Not to mention the fact that it’s a lot harder to come up with $36,000 all at once than it is to come up with $100 consistently.

This principle is true for all the investments of our lives. It extends far beyond just finances. It’s true for our relationships, our vocation and our career, our art, our education, even our physical health.

Doing a little bit on a regular basis is far more powerful than doing a whole lot at once. It’s also far more sustainable.

But we despise doing a little bit on a regular basis. We live in a culture that craves microwave results. And thus, we have acquired a thirst for instant gratification.

For example, we want to get healthier, but the idea of starting a routine of walking for just 15 minutes a day doesn’t motivate us — we despise how simple and humble that approach is. And so instead we buy a gym membership, hire a personal trainer, spend $500 on new workout clothes and fancy armbands to hold our iPhones, and we commit to 2 hours a day 6 days a week. Then we burn out in a few weeks time never to exercise again.

Only a fool would deposit $100 into a savings account and come back the next day expecting it to have grown to $200. It’s not until years later that the account begins to see the exponential return on the investment. We know that financial investments and the growth of compound interest takes time — so too the investments we make in the rest of our lives.

One of the personal challenges of doing small things consistently over time is that we don’t naturally choose them. In the moment, we would rather spend that $100 on a new toy or a nice dinner instead of investing it.

We tell ourselves that it’s only $100, and that spending it instead of investing it just this one time doesn’t really hurt anything. But it does hurt. And the reason it hurts is because it makes spending the $100 next time all the easier. And before long, it’s been a decade and we’ve yet to invest a dime.

Clearly, there is value in small things done consistently over time.

Which means that our most basic actions and seemingly inconsequential routines are actually the key players moving our life in whatever direction it is going.

Ben Franklin said, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”

What are these little advantages that occur every day?

They are the daily habits and lifestyle choices we make.

For a while we have choose them — sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. But then, after a few weeks or a few months they begin to choose us back. And over time, they become deeply rooted. We just do them.

This is great news for our good habits! It means that if we begin to implement something healthy and helpful into our lifestyle, then over time it will become second nature to us.

But our deep-rooted routines can be a nightmare if they are things we don’t want to be doing. Such as a poor diet, unhealthy relationship with our spouse or loved ones, inability to manage money, etc.

We don’t all have the physical and mental willpower to make great decisions all day every day. In fact, as the day goes along, we slowly lose our willpower.

When I was in high school, after classes my friends and I would walk back to my house and we’d just sit around doing nothing.

One person would ask: “So, what do you guys want to do?” And someone else would respond: “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

None of us could think of any ideas for what to do. Nor could any of us make a decision. It’s not just that we were teenage dudes — we were also mentally tired from a full day of school.

Even now, 15 years later, when my work day is done, I just want to collapse on the couch and not make any decisions or think about anything.

When you’re in this tired state is the moment when your lifestyle habits take over. Whatever your default actions, behaviors, and decisions are, these are the things you will do when you are low on willpower and your decision-making ability is fatigued.

I think this is a huge reason why the average American spends 5 hours or more watching television every day.

He or she comes home from the day feeling tired and doesn’t want to think about what to do. So he or she simply turns on the television and pretty soon the whole evening has been spent watching sitcoms and crime dramas.

Over time (which can be as quickly as a few weeks for some, but takes about 8 weeks for most) the act of watching TV every night after work becomes a routine. It turns into a lifestyle habit. That person’s mind and body expect to watch TV and even look forward to it. It’s a habit — a reflex.

Now, I’m not here to preach that 5 hours of TV every day is bad (you can figure that one out for yourself).

You can do whatever you want with your time. But… if you were to choose how you would prefer to spend your week which one of these options would you pick?

  1. Watch 35 hours of television.
  2. Write 7,000 words toward your next book.
  3. Encourage 7 of your closest friends and family members.
  4. Read 7 chapters of a book.
  5. Walk 7 miles.

I know some of you will say that watching 35 hours of TV per week is your preferred way to spend your time. But I bet most of you would choose to write, read, connect with others, or stay healthy.

Now, what if I told you that you could trade the 35 hours of television for the other 4 tasks combined?

35 hours of TV is equal to 5 hours every day for 7 days.

With those same 5 hours each day, you’d have time to spend one whole hour writing, one whole hour encouraging someone over email or making a phone call, one whole hour to read a chapter from a book, one whole hour to walk a mile around your neighborhood, and still have one whole hour to spare (heck you could use that last hour to watch an episode of your favorite show).

You can do a lot in 5 hours. Especially if you break it up into small routines.

It sounds ridiculous that someone could get so much done every day when they’re so used to getting nothing done. But it’s not ridiculous. It just requires building better defaults.

If you choose something long enough, eventually it will choose you back. The same way your mind and your body looked forward to turning on the TV when you got home from work, so too will your mind and body learn to look forward to reading, writing, walking, and encouraging others.

Leo Babauta wrote about how his most important things (writing, meditation, reading, email processing, workouts, meals) he doesn’t even have to think about. He’s built them into his day as defaults.

I cannot stress enough the importance of having your most important work be a part of your daily routine.

There are two quotes that I use often throughout The Focus Course:

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” — F.M. Alexander

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” — John C. Maxwell

By far and away, if you have more ideas than time but more time than attention, the best way to keep the needle moving forward is to have smarter “defaults” for how your spend your time and energy. Keep choosing the right actions and attitudes until they choose you back.

Concerning the Ebb and Flow of “Work”

As I write this, I’m preparing to spend a week in the mountains. And, in fact, by the time you read this I’ll already be in the mountains.

Up until this point, the entirety of 2015 I spent working on The Focus Course. Now that it has shipped, I’m taking some time away from work.

When you rest well, it should leave you feeling recharged and re-energized, ready to get back to work. I love to work. I love creating things and connecting with people. But work needs and ebb and and a flow.

I’ve discovered that I work best with seasons where my focus is solely on the idea and task at hand. Where I eat, sleep, and breath one particular project. And then, I need time away from work. To give my mind space to breath.

Perhaps you can relate, or perhaps you think I’m crazy, but taking time off isn’t easy for me. My tendency is to work, work, work.

Though I don’t let my work time come before my family time, I do have to remind myself that even my working hours aren’t all about “creating”. It took me several years before I realized it was just as important for me to read, study, and learn as it was for me to write, make, and ship.

In this short and sweet interview with Cameron Moll, he shares about his work and life as a designer and the founder of Authentic Jobs. I love this quote:

I was always building stuff with my hands growing up. Like always. Wood projects, go-karts, radio-controlled airplanes, that sort of thing. I think we underestimate sometimes just how much those kinds of activities, the ones that seem completely unrelated to our careers, play a vital role in shaping who we become and what we do with our working lives. The tools I use now in business are totally different from those I used in my garage twenty years ago, but in the end they’re all the same. They’re just tools that facilitate synthesis and creativity. And ten or twenty years from now, those tools will be totally different again. Mastery of creation and composition is much more important than mastery of tools.

I love that sentiment: “Mastery of creation and composition is much more important than mastery of tools.”

Here, Cameron is talking about the tools we use to build things. But I believe that this could also be applied to our workflows and our lifestyles as well. That mastery of creation is much more important than mastery of workflows.

We often ask people about the tools they use to get the job done. We’re curious about their work routines, their schedule, their priorities, etc.

But we rarely ask them what they are doing to stay sharp. What do they do in their off time? What hobbies to they keep? What does their family life look like? How do they spend their free time?

Who we are and what we do when we are away from our most important work is just as important as the energy and focus we give to doing that work. Because we are who we are, everywhere we are. Eating a healthy meal, having a good night’s sleep, telling our spouses that we love them — all these things impact the quality of the work we produce.

The lines between work and life are much more blurry than we like to imagine.

Another article I read just recently is this story about how William Dalrymple writes his books.

It takes Dalrymple 3-4 years to write a book. The first 2-3 years are spent reading, researching traveling. Then, the final year is spent writing.

Dalrymple shares about how his writing year is “completely different from the others”. He stops going out much. He gets up at 5:30 every morning to write. He works out in his back shed where there is no internet connection. He doesn’t look at his cell phone or email until after lunch.

In the final year I go from a rambling individual to almost autocratically, fixatedly hardworking and focused and that is the one discipline of being a writer. One year in four or five you are completely eaten up by the book. If it’s working, you’re really dreaming it, it’s not a figure of speech, it’s a literal thing. You’re harnessing the power of your subconscious.

As artists we so often hear about these seasons of other artists’ lives: the intense, focused, eat-sleep-work seasons. And we think that this is what life is like all the time.

But it can’t be. Dalrymple couldn’t spend a year focused on his writing without the preceding 2-3 years of reading, researching, and traveling.

You have to be inspired first before you can create.

You have to learn before you can teach.

You have to experience before you can share.

There is no shame in taking time “off” of your work, in order to learn something, experience something, and be inspired.

This is the ebb and flow of work. This is having multi-year cycles where we grow in our mastery of creation beyond just mastery of tools and workflows. This is why resting well is so valuable and why learning, thinking, and discovering cannot be underrated.

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P.S. Just a side note to mention that the challenges of work-life balance, fighting a sense of overwhelm, and giving ourselves space to think and margin for thought are all foundational topics to The Focus Course. If this article hits home for you, I bet you would find immense value in taking 40 days to work your way through the course.

Creativity is a Gift

Doing our best creative work is a fight.

It strikes me this morning that I’ve been saying this often over the past few years. (Maybe it’s becoming my motto or tagline or something.)

I love how Steven Pressfield puts it. In his books — especially The War of Art — he talks at length about that great enemy called resistance.

Pressfield writes that “any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity,” or, “any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower” is sure to elicit resistance.

When you set your sights on doing something of value and something meaningful, rest assured you will face resistance.

If you’ve ever spent so much as a one minute trying to create something of value and substance, then you know first hand that it is a fight to be and stay creative.

But what I love about the fight is that it’s self evident.

If you find yourself facing fear, doubt, shame, difficulty, perplexity, and/or overwhelm when you sit down to do the work then rejoice! All that resistance means you’re trying to do something worthwhile. The resistance is proof that you’re on the right track. Don’t quit.

Seriously. Don’t quit.

But quitting is not what I’m here to talk about. The advice to not quit is common. It’s good advice. You and I need to hear it every day. When I set my watch for 30 minutes, put in my earbuds, shut off the outside world, and make myself write for half an hour I have to remind myself that I’m not allowed to quit.

As a creative person you need boundaries.

You need space to think. You need time to focus on the work at hand while your mind stares up to the stars, discovering new worlds and ideas.

You need time to yourself.

You need at least some level of autonomy to call the shots and draw a line in the sand.

But I have found that in my process of setting up boundaries that help me do my best creative work, a seed of selfishness and narcissism can plant itself.

Don’t let that happen. In the fight to do our best creative work, narcissism is not the destination — generosity is.

Why? Because creativity should, by definition, bring life. You’ve taken something that did not previously exist and now it does.

Which means your best shot at doing your best creative work is to do something that will bring life to others.

As you focus on doing your best creative work, don’t get so absorbed in your own thoughts and your own world that you cease to be generous, kind, outgoing, helpful, and selfless toward others.

Don’t Let Success Breed Failure

At the recommendation of Jeff Sheldon, a few days ago I ordered Dale Partridge’s new book, People Over Profit. I’m half-way through, and the book is about so much more than running an honest and successful business.

Partridge’s book is about character, integrity, honesty, serving others, being transparent and generous, and investing in quality. People Over Profit is encouraging and thought provoking for anyone with a platform, an audience, an entrepreneurial spirit, and/or a role in leadership or management.

I’ve highlighted several passages and quotes so far, and a couple of them I want to write about today.

Here’s one of the first idea from the book that really struck me. Partridge writes:

All good companies must have some level of efficiency, which can be a tool to help achieve noble goals. But problems arise when efficiency becomes the goal — when it is no longer a means to an end but the end in itself.

The context here is that Partridge is talking about how most companies start out with honest values and goals, but as their business grows these companies seek ways to improve their efficiency and to keep growing.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to improve efficiency and to keep growing. In fact, I touched on this recently when I wrote about value, price, cost, and profit. In order increase profit without decreasing value you have to either: (a) add more value; or (b) lower costs without sacrificing quality.

Increasing efficiency without losing value or quality is not so easy. But what Partridge had to say about efficiency becoming the main goal stood out to me on a personal level as well.

Take the same quote from above but replace “all good companies” with “any individual” and the text still rings true:

Any individual must have some level of efficiency, which can be a tool to help achieve noble goals. But problems arise when efficiency becomes the goal — when it is no longer a means to an end but the end in itself.

This past November I recorded a whole podcast episode on the issue of focusing too much on focus. The idea is that distractions and resistance are universal things we all face when trying to get things done. It’s important to know what to focus on, to be good at working through distractions, and to reduce to the essentials when it comes to projects and our environment. But it’s also possible (if not easy) to obsess so much on focus that we’re not even getting the most important things done because we’re too concerned about being efficient.

As a husband, a father, and as someone who makes things I would much rather move slowly in the right direction than quickly in the wrong direction.

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The second quote that stood out to me is actually a quote Partridge pulled from Jim Collins’s book, How the Mighty Fall.

Launching headlong into activities that do not fit with your economic or resource engine is undisciplined. Addiction to scale is undisciplined. To neglect your core business while you leap after exciting new adventures is undisciplined. To use the organization primarily as a vehicle to increase your own personal success—more wealth, more fame, more power—at the expense of its long-term success is undisciplined. To compromise your values or lose sight of your core purpose in pursuit of growth and expansion is undisciplined.

I’ve read so many times about how success for a company can be more deadly than failure. Because with success comes opportunity and options. Which, in the words of Jim Collins, can open the door for a company to loose discipline and focus.

When companies lose focus from doing their primary mission — doing what they are best at — then they slowly begin to lose ground.

And the same is true for individuals. When you or I lose focus on doing what is most important then we begin to drift.

They say 70% of lottery winners spend their entire winnings within 5 years of hitting jackpot and are oftentimes worse for wear afterward. They “finally” got their big break but it didn’t improve the quality of their life.

Another study I recently heard about discovered that people’s baseline level of happiness does not grow proportionally to their income. They said that after someone’s annual salary reaches $65,000 their general mood and happiness sort-of plateau relative to their income. That even if that person were to double their annual income to $130,000 their “happiness level” would only increase by 7%. (The study went on to say that people were more happy when they spent their money on experiences and generosity rather than on things.)

As a company or as an individual, we all go through seasons of plenty and seasons of want. And I’m not just talking about finances. We go through seasons of plenty and seasons of want with our quality relationships, our quality of life, our health, our areas of influence, and more.

The challenge is to live with intention no matter the season.

We hear that term a lot: “intentional living.” Basically it just means we have the wherewithal to take a moment to pause and think. It means we respond to things instead of reacting to them.

So, when you’re in a season of plenty — as a business or as an individual — then invest your resources wisely and take time to pause and think so you can stay on focus.

I’m serious. Re-focusing is not a sign of weakness. Nor does it mean you’re in over your head. Every human needs regular “re-focusing” to stay on track.

Life happens, and our priorities and circumstances change. Give yourself permission to spend a week or a month taking stock of your values and priorities. Re-assess how you’re spending your time and energy. Doing so is a sign of maturity and motivation.

Behind The Scenes of The Focus Course: Outlining, Architecting, and Writing

The Focus Course Notecards

I built the Focus Course on 3×5 notecards.

While there were other tools — such as highlighters, binder clips, the world’s greatest pen, iA Writer, MailChimp, WordPress, a Baron Fig notebook, and a stack of paperback books taller than my 3-year-old — the notecards proved to be instrumental.

The idea to outline and build the Focus Course on notecards came from this awesome video about how Dustin Lance Black creates his movie screenplays:

So, earlier this year, I opened up a fresh pack of DotDash cards from my pals a Nock and wrote down all the ideas and topics for the course. Putting only one idea, topic, assignment, or lesson per notecard. Then I laid everything out to survey what was there.

Being able to see it all visually like this proved to be immensely helpful. I could quickly move stuff around and get an idea for the overall flow of the course.

The Focus Course Notecards

I had 7 “rows” of cards: the Introduction, the five modules, and the conclusion. At first I had just shy of 60 days worth of cards in there. But I knew that I had to keep it to 40 (in the end I cheated by not counting the introduction or conclusion day, so technically it’s 42 days).

The challenge of paring the course from 60 days down to 40 wasn’t easy. Some of the cards I just tossed out altogether. Others I ended up combining. When friends would come over, I’d bring them down to my office and show them the outline and ask what they thought.

Finally, once I had the 40 days settled, I went through the order over and over in my head. I wanted Day 1 to lead into Day 2 to lead into Day 3, etc. I wanted all of Module 1 to lead into Module 2. And so on. I wanted there to be an ebb and flow to the lessons, so that the more fun days were interspersed with the more challenging introspective day, etc. And I wanted the course to start with something easy and fun note and to end with something fun but challenging.

In short, the information architecture of the course was just as vital as the contents. And the notecards were instrumental in helping get the architecture just right.

The Focus Course Notecards

With the order of the course finally finished. I started outlining each lesson. On the front of each card was simply the focus for each day. On the back of the card I could put any notes, ideas, and references for that day, but it had to fit on the card. I didn’t want to have so much content it’d be impossible to get through each day’s lesson in a timely manner, so my outlines were literally constrained by the physical size of a 3×5 notecard.

Then, I put the whole stack of cards in order, placed them next to my desk, and started writing. Each day I took the topmost card and wrote the corresponding lesson for the course.

It took me 47 days to write the course. I began on March 19 and finished on May 5. During that month and a half, I wrote 40 daily lessons, plus the course’s introduction, conclusion, and the 5 module overviews: roughly 55,000 words in total; an average of 1,170 words every single day.1

It was this outlining and writing workflow that got me into the habit of having a pre-defined topic to write about. Writing the Focus Course in 47 days may sound like a huge task, but actually it was pretty easy.

For one, because I was so deeply immersed in the topics and content, everything was top of mind. Secondly, the rhythm and routine of writing every day got pretty easy after the first couple weeks.

Lastly, the constraints of the notecards themselves — a single topic with a pre-defined outline — took away much of the ambiguity involved in the writing process. All I had left to do was expound on the ideas I had already written down.

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This workflow could be used for so many other things: A book, a weekly email newsletter, a month-long series of blog posts, etc.

If you’re struggling to write daily, consider giving it a try. Pick a subject, write down a handful of singular ideas, give yourself a constraint about how in-depth (or not) you’ll go on each idea, and then give yourself a timeline for when you’ll write about and publish each of those.

  1. In a future post I’ll be sharing about the how and why I had a group of 90 pilot members to go through the course ahead of time and help me finalize the contents and flow. These amazing folks proved to be so valuable and helpful.

Remembering to Take My Own Advice

Just because you know about something doesn’t mean you do anything about it. There are overweight dietitians, sleep-deprived sleep researchers, broke business coaches, and angry counselors.

Common knowledge is not the same as common action.

* * *

The balance between our work and personal lives isn’t so much a perfect balancing act. It’s more of a zig and a zag. We spend a season of time focusing on a particular area of life, then we pull back and spend a season focusing on something else. We work hard at the office and then we go on vacation with the family.

It has been three weeks since the Focus Course launched. And now that this chapter of my life is closed, in the zig-zag of life I am taking some time off during the next month to be with and visit family as well as to celebrate 10 amazing years of marriage with my wife.

And during this down-time I’ll be thinking about what’s next.

* * *

This morning I was leafing through the notebook I used to jot down most of my research notes related to The Focus Course.

I came across one page, right in the middle of my notebook, that had several unordered bullet points on the importance of a focused life. These are some of the original ideas that later got expounded on as part of the course. I want to share them here with you.

  • If you want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything you’re more likely to do, be, and control nothing.
  • Energy and motivation go further when they’re focused / channeled into a specific area.
  • Clearly defined boundaries empower us to do better work. Hence the value in having daily routines. Also boundaries for how we will not spend our time, money, energy, etc. We have a finite amount of motivation, so keep in mind that if we commit to something new then it will need energy from another area of life.
  • Goals and action plans allow all your energy to know where to take aim. Your motivation has a path to run on.
  • Quality relationships are critical! Get around people with a sense of humor, who are high performers, who are fun and funny, and who are generous.
  • We need humor and enjoyment in life.
  • If you feel that you don’t have enough time, realize you have all the time you’re going to get. It’s impossible to be motivated when operating under other people’s unreasonable timezones and the tyranny of the urgent. Time is infinitely more valuable than money.

I have such a propensity to want to do everything, be everywhere, and control everything. But I know that the times I’ve done my best work are the times when I had one specific goal and one main project that I was focused on.

Reading my own notes this morning was a reminder to myself that just because I know a little bit about focus and diligence, doesn’t mean I’m immune to ever being un-focused. As I take some time to think and plan for what is next, I also need to remember to take my own advice: clearly defined boundaries empower; life needs humor and joy; I have all the time I’m going to get.

If you’re also slowing down this summer to think about what’s in store for the next season of life, instead of trying to figure out how you’re going to do it all, maybe try to do one thing really well.

The Art of Price and Value

Two years ago I launched my first real product.

I remember waking up the morning of the launch and feeling sick. I didn’t have the flu. I was scared. There was a big knot in the pit of my stomach. I felt like a fraud. I was afraid people would buy my book, read it, and feel ripped off.

The book I’m talking about is Delight is in the Details.

On the day I was to put it up for sell all I could think about was how I felt like a fraud and an imposter. I was scared that I was charging for something that should be free. In short, I wasn’t confident that the value of the book was greater than the price I was charging.

Who was I, I thought, to make something and then ask people to give me money for it? I didn’t trust my ability to create something of value.

It was such a bizarre feeling. I chose to ignore it and stick with my plan. I put Delight is in the Details up for sale when I said I would and I didn’t lower my price.

Delight is in the Details has since gone on to sell more than 2,000 copies. I have heard from so many people who have read the book, listened to the interviews, and have been inspired. I’ve even gone back and referenced my own writing from the book multiple times, to re-take my own advice and remind myself of those values and ideas.

* * *

Over the past two years, I’ve thought a lot about that day and those feelings: the fear, doubt, and even the shame that can accompany a product launch. Here you’ve got this thing that you’ve created for someone else, and you’re trying to assign a value to it. It’s not easy to do.

But since that initial product launch two years ago, I’ve since had two more times through a launch: last summer (2014) I published a big update to Delight is in the Details, and then a couple weeks ago I published The Focus Course.

Here’s an interesting data point: I charged more each product. In part because I learned how to add more and more value, but also because I learned to trust my ability to create something of value.

If you’ve got a product you’re trying to assign a value to, here’s something to consider:

Your product has three adjustable numbers: Cost, Price, and Value.

Cost Value Price

Cost is the time and money it takes to make the product.

Price is what you sell the product for. (Assuming it’s higher than your cost, then the difference is your profit.)

Value is what your product is worth in the eyes of the people who buy it.

These three numbers must be in balance.

Your price has to be more than your cost so you can make a profit. But you also want your price to be less than the product’s value so the people who buy from you are getting something worthwhile.

This is why pricing is an art, not a science. You need to make a sustainable and worthwhile profit from your product. But you also want to provide as much additional value as possible.

In my experience, there are two ways to adjust my cost/price/value ratios in order to have a price that is sustainable for me while also being fair to the people who buy my products.

  1. First is to cut your costs in a way that doesn’t simultaneously sacrifice value or quality. Sometimes this is as easy as not wasting money on trivial minutia. Sometimes it requires thinking outside the box, working smarter, finding better help, scaling your production to get price breaks, or cutting out features that maybe can wait until a future update.

  2. Second is to add value in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily or dramatically increase complexity or cost. I think one of the best ways to do this is by sweating the details. When you add empathy and delight to your product and the experience surrounding it, then the people who use it feel honored and excited.

    The packaging that an Apple product comes in is an excellent example of both empathy (the boxes are easy to open and unpack) and delight (the boxes are high quality and well designed). It’s one of many ways Apple adds value to their products without dramatically increasing the cost to make the product.

* * *

Here I’m going to share my own examples of how I did this, by sharing what I did to add value to The Focus Course. I’m using the Focus Course because it’s a real-life example that’s still very fresh in my mind.

I’ll first share about the real costs associated with the course, what I did to make the course as valuable as possible, and then where and why I landed on for the price.


For me, The Focus Course has two costs associated with it: the initial cost of building it and ongoing cost of running it.

I spent at least 1,500 hours (and probably more) of my own time to research, write, and architect the course. I also invested $9,600 to pay for the design, development, videos, editing, research material, and a few other miscellaneous odds and ends.

The second cost is the ongoing expense of keeping the course going. I pay for hosting the website (Flywheel), the webfonts (Hoefler & Co.), the SSL cert and domain registration, the video and media files (Vimeo Pro; Amazon S3), the forum (Discourse & Digital Ocean), the email servers (Mandrill and MailChimp), and the membership service and payment gateway (Memberful).

All in all, the services which power the Focus Course cost $211 / month to run. And the more people who sign up for the course, the more these monthly expense go up. This is certainly not a massive expense right now, but neither is it insignificant.

Additionally, I have to be able to pay a designer / developer for any updates, changes, or improvements to the website.

All this may sound like a lot when it’s listed out, but actually I think it’s quite reasonable. The moving parts all fit together quite nicely to make an overall awesome product that I’m proud of and that I believe is sustainable to maintain.


The big question I kept asking myself over and over was this: How can I make The Focus Course as valuable as possible?

In fact, it was this question that led me to build the course in the first place. As you may know, The Power of a Focused Life was originally going to be a book. But once I finished the initial draft of the book, and I began to read other books for research, I discovered that so many of important actionable items within these books were mostly buried underneath all the ideas and theory. I realized that my own book was suffering from the same fate, and so by asking myself how I could make the product more valuable I realized that it needed to be something other than a book.

Then, as the course began to take shape and I decided that I wanted to charge $250, I knew that I needed to build something that looked and worked like a $500 product and had the foundational content of a $1,000 product.

Basically, when people sign up, I want them to instantly feel as if they’ve already gotten more than they paid for. I want them to feel excited and refreshed. And then, by the time they finished the course, I want them to feel an even greater satisfaction — that they got what they were looking for and more.

It is critical to me that the value of the Focus Course be far greater than its price.

The foundation of the course’s value is, obviously, the content itself. There are 40 days of assignments and lessons, and if those 40 days don’t flow well and offer something of substance, then the rest doesn’t matter. And, fittingly, this is where I spent the bulk of my time and energy. Then, once I had the course outlined and written, I worked with nearly 100 “beta” testers to go through it and get their feedback on the contents alone.

The early pilot version of the course was ugly. And when I say “ugly” what I mean is “ugly.” I sent out ugly looking emails every day and I had a generic WordPress theme. It was just the raw content of the course with nothing to hide behind.

But once I knew that the content itself was right, then I got to work sweating the details.

And so, in addition to the content, there were a few other things I set up to add additional value to the course.

  • Design: I wanted everything about the course to be beautiful, readable, unique, professional, and responsive. Not only does a well-designed product feel more professional and high-quality, but I also wanted to use design as a competitive edge. There are other similar types of products out there and I wanted the Focus Course to be the best-looking.

  • Community: Having a thriving community forum that’s filled with other people going through the course is a massive value. It provides accountability, encouragement, help, and just a great sense of camaraderie.

  • All the little details: everywhere I could I tried to add fun extras. This includes a friendly welcome video when you first sign up, a welcome page and email that tells you everything on the website, personal follow up emails to check in on, an easy sign-up process with single sign on for the course and the forums, as well as some really fun easter eggs you naturally discover once you start the course.


One of the hardest aspects to building the Focus Course was coming up with a price. I went back and forth with all sorts of different numbers.

I wanted to charge an amount that was fair to those who bought the course — making sure the value given exceeds the price they paid. But I also needed to charge enough to make back the time and money initially invested, as well as being able to cover the ongoing costs of hosting the course.

Moreover, by charging a fair price, I can do more than just maintain the course, I can keep working on it and adding more value. I already have a clear roadmap for the next update.

I’ll also add that by charging a fair price relative to the content and commitment required, it means the people who buy The Focus Course have something invested in it. If I were to charge $5 then people would value the course as something about on par with a latte.

However, by charging $250, people see the course for what it actually is: something incredibly valuable that requires sacrifice. Which means those who do sign up are far more likely to actually to commit the time an energy needed to work their way through the 40 days.

You can’t buy word of mouth

When the value of what you’re selling is more than the price you’re charging for it, people who buy your product feel honored. (Conversely, if the value is at or below the price, people feel ripped off or cheated.)

When you sweat the details and add empathy, joy, and delight into your product then it makes people feel happy and excited.

And who doesn’t want happy, honored people as customers?

And Now For Something Completely Different

Wow. What a wild and awesome past few weeks. The Focus Course has launched (as you well know, haha), and now things return to their regular schedule. (Well, technically, they’ll return this coming Monday. I’ve got a birthday and a holiday weekend, so I’m taking some time off after today.)

Over the coming months I will be sharing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stories, information, and motivation about building and launching the Focus Course. If you have any questions for me that you’d love to see answered, please just email me. I’ve been doing this self-employed, work-from-home-as-a-full-time-writer racket for more than four years and I want to do what I can to encourage you that, yes, you can do your best creative work every day.

But today, I want to share something different. Simply a video of a man ironing a shirt.

Now, this is no ordinary video. This is one of my favorite YouTube videos of all time.

I can’t say exactly what it is about this ironing video that I love so much, but it’s just awesome.

Maybe it’s the meticulousness and skill with which the man irons that shirt. Maybe it’s the neat-freak in me loving to see that wrinkly shirt get ironed out. Or maybe it’s because this gives me hope that I don’t always have to be horrible at ironing.

Who knew that ironing could be a craft?

It makes me wonder how many shirts this man has ironed. Would he even tolerate the cheap Black & Decker iron and squeaky ironing table that are hiding in my closet feeling very insecure and inadequate at the moment?

The Focus Course is Now Available

Here it is. The Focus Course has launched and is now available for you to sign up.

The Focus Course is normally $250. But during the launch week, it’s just $199.

It’s 40 days and 5 modules. 18 videos. 75,000 words. Has downloadable PDF workbooks and HD videos. There’s a members-only discussion forum. You get lifetime access plus a money-back guarantee. And there are some awesome launch-week giveaways.

The Focus Course is for anyone who wants to increase productivity, personal integrity, morale, and overall quality of life. What sets the course apart is that it guides you in the implementation of these principles so that these topics go beyond mere head knowledge and into experiential knowledge.

If you’re ready to bring your life into focus, sign up here. You’ll get instant access to everything in the course right away.

Tomorrow: The Focus Course

The Focus Course

Tomorrow at 10:00am EST, The Focus Course will be available.

This post is to tell you exactly what you’ll be getting when you sign up for The Focus Course. And, I hope to convey just how much value there is in the materials.

Over the past 11 months I have spent thousands of hours writing, researching, and architecting the content of this course. I’ve poured myself into building something that is professional, delightful, informative, fun, unique, and, most of all, very impactful. I am confident that the contents and value of the course are well worth the investment, and I hope this detailed look at everything in the course can help to demonstrate that.

If and when you sign up for the course, you can either start right away or wait to begin until a time that’s best for you. Since you’ll get lifetime access to the website there is no rush to start immediately.

The course will cost $249. At launch, however, it will be just $199.

That said, here are all the details…

The Course Itself

This is it. A 40-day course, broken down into 5 modules.

Each module centers around a specific theme. And each day you’ll be given a fun and simple task to complete along with a teaching lesson about the value, relevancy, and practicality of that day’s task.

I’ve said this before and it’s worth repeating: The Focus Course has been meticulously and intentionally designed to lead you along the easiest and most impactful path. It starts out easy and fun and culminates in profound change and understanding.

You are free to take the course at any pace that works for you. The website keeps track of which days you have completed, and you can easily see your progress.

And since you have lifetime access to the course, there is no rush to complete it (or even start it) until you’re ready.

Here’s a very brief overview of each module:

Module One: Foundations Days 1-7 focus on personal integrity, creative imagination, progress, reducing distractions, building social support, generosity, and simplifying.

Module Two: Honesty Days 8-17 focus on who you are and what’s important to you; roles, values, vision, legacy, short- and long-term goals, and how to realistically move toward them.

Module Three: Clarity Days 18-28 focus on how you’re currently spending your time and energy, what your potential is, and how to apply change and begin making progress.

Module Four: Action (and Resistance) Days 29-34 focus on the most common areas of resistance and how to overcome them.

Module Five: Meaning Days 35-40 focus on joy, fear, meaningful work, finding flow, margin for thought, and community.

Day 41: Conclusion A wrap-up day will help you take your new ideas, understanding, and life changes and maintain them for the long-run. I also have some advice on how to stay motivated and keep making forward progress after the course is over, and doing work that matters.

Focus Course Video Stack

19 Videos + Bonus Articles

There are 8 video teachings that accompany the introduction of the course, the start of each module, and the conclusion.

Additionally, there are 11 bonus videos and articles where I answer the most common questions and struggles related to focus, time management, work/life balance, doing meaningful work, and more.

Some of the bonus videos and articles are:

  • How to Pick The Right Task When There are So Many Great Ideas
  • How to Stop Managing Your Tasks and Start Doing Them
  • Dealing With Distractions
  • Building Deep Personal Integrity
  • How to Rest and Recharge
  • Productivity and Parenting
  • Dealing with Distractions
  • How to distinguish between urgent and important
  • And more…

You can watch the videos right on the website, and all 19 are available to download in HD.

Focus Course PDF Workbook

PDF Workbook

If you’d like to save a PDF version of the course to your computer or tablet, or print it out in order to go through the Focus Course in hard copy, this is for you. 273 pages, full-color, and professionally designed.

Discourse for the Focus Course Forum

Members-Only Discussion Forum

There is a members-only forum where you can ask questions and share any feedback, ideas, breakthroughs, stories, etc.

The American Society of Training and Development states that those who simply decide to do something have a 25% chance of accomplishing it, whereas those who decide when and where they will do something and who also have someone to report back to have a 95% chance of accomplishing their goal.

In short, the membership forums are for more than just asking questions and sharing ideas, victories, and struggles. They are also there for the sake of accountability to help you as you work your way through the Course.

On a nerdy note, the forum software we use is called Discourse. I realize that most people don’t know or care much about forum software, but I do and trust me when I tell you that Discourse is the best option out there. Period. I was ecstatic when I found a way to tie the forum software into the course and install it on an affordable server.

Focus Course Giveaways


Anyone who signs up for the Focus Course during the first week will be eligible to win one of 44 prizes.

  • 35 copies each of Day One for Mac + iOS
  • Four Baron Fig Confidant notebooks
  • Five of the 3-packs of the Baron Fig Apprentice, pocket notebooks
  • Never Settle Gold Print from Ugmonk
  • Slow and Steady gold print from Ugmonk

A huge thanks to the Baron Fig, Day One, and Ugmonk for donating these awesome goods to help with the launch of the Focus Course.

And most of all, a huge thanks to you, dear reader. There has been a lot of lead to the launch of the course tomorrow. If you have any questions at all about the course, please don’t hesitate to email me.


My life has been mile-marked by my first son’s birth day.

There is life before I was a dad and there is life after his birth. And this. Now. This is the real and the good life.

My wife and I have two boys: our oldest, Noah, is nearly 3 and a half; our youngest, Giovanni, is nearly 2. They are sweet, noisy, wild, fun, frustrating, and delightful. I can’t imagine life without them.

Fatherhood is, by far and away, the most wonderful role in the world.

To all the other dads out there — now or yet to be — happy Father’s Day. May our sons and daughters grow up with clear minds and full hearts.

Interview with Joanna Eitel

Joanna Eitel is another one of the 90 pilot members who took The Focus Course this past spring. Joanna and her husband Tyler actually live here in Kansas City, Missouri. They have a 3-year old son and 1-year old daughter.

Joanna Eitel

Joanna Eitel, Office Manager & Mother

Joanna worked almost ten years as an event coordinator, literally helping coordinate events of 20,000+ people. She now works part-time as the office manager for an adoption agency, along with being a wife and mom.

After the pilot course, I asked Joanna some questions about her specific challenges related to focus, what her thoughts are about doing work that matters, and how the course impacted her.

* * *

Shawn: What is your biggest challenge related to focus?

Joanna: For me, I have many roles: wife, mother, administrator, event coordinator, friend, and daughter just to name a few. And while I love every one of these roles, they don’t always stick to their own clean and organized schedule.

I could be in the middle of a conference call and one of my kiddos has a fall. Or while sitting in a staff meeting I may be distracted trying to remember what I need from the grocery store. Or perhaps I’m in the middle of cooking dinner and get a text from my boss requesting my attention on an issue. Even if he doesn’t need my answer right away, it now has my focus.

Through your course, I learned that many times these situations are related to the pressure to deal with what you call the tyranny of the urgent and not having a solution on how to filter such “pop-ups” as they arise.

What does the idea of work / life balance mean to you?

That these roles can coexist, however I need balance and a good action plan to juggle it well. When at work I want to be energized to do my best and give my all. However when I come home, I need to know how to unplug and be intentional with my family and personal life. Not only does this directly connect to my habits and disciplines at home but also what habits and systems I have in place at work!

What was something you learned during the course?

I learned several things, actually:

  • During one of the modules I realized part of my day at home was lost simply thinking of what needed to be done or deciding what to focus on next. If I tried checking the task list on my phone I found myself getting distracted by various social media notifications or emails. Now, I have a small white board on my refrigerator. Along with my project management apps or calendars that I love, I write my top priorities for that day on the white board. What project I’m focusing on, what calls need to be made, even if there’s laundry downstairs that I can’t forget about. The same goes for if I think of an email that I need to send or an idea to fully process later, I’ll note it on the board instead of worrying that I might forget. It’s simple and serves as a constant reminder to stay focused in the midst of the inevitable curve balls throughout the day.

  • All throughout the Focus Course, Shawn, you did an incredible job not only sharing steps and systems on how to be productive and focused but also you walked me through, step by step how to create my own mission statement and life goals. And not just within my vocation (which I think is where most of us focus on) but physically, financially, spiritually and relationally as well! Now when an opportunity arises, I am able to make a decision based on those core values and what I am called to “focus on” in this season. I can remember to stay true to who I am called to be and not distracted by what Pinterest defines as perfect or successful.

  • Also, the concept of organizing one’s time and productivity is not new to me. When I first read Getting Things Done by David Allen I was hooked. Because of my love for all things administrative and organization, I enjoy reading ideas and methods used by some great men and women — it just makes sense! However after becoming a mom and having even more to juggle, I had a harder time making sense of it all and finding where to even start. Along with research and insight, Shawn was even able to relate how he and his wife are able to apply these practices in their own home life. As a working mom, I finally felt like I had someone to relate to!

    The way the course was laid out made it easy follow, and it provided practical avenues to integrate the principles into my daily routine immediately.

Did the daily tasks that accompany the course help to make the teaching sink in?

Yes! Having daily “homework” — or tasks — challenged me to put each philosophy introduced into practice, one step at a time.

I will never forget reading the assignment on Day One: laying out my clothes for the next day. For me it turned out to be a day that I was only planning on playing with the kids and tackling a long list of chores. Still, I laid out my favorite pink t-shirt and jeans. It actually made quite a difference! The simple act of getting dressed sooner in the day without a doubt jump started productivity level. Had I waited to make this simple of a decision until that day, I probably would have been caught up in the swirl of the day and the “tyranny of the urgent” and would not have felt clear, level headed and prepared for the day ahead.

What was your favorite aspect of the course?

My favorite part of this course was taking it along with my husband!

While we weren’t always on the same day, we enjoyed being able to challenge each other and follow up with what each of us was learning. It also made it easier to integrate these practices into our daily routine. One outcome from this course is we have started a weekly “team meeting” / in-home date night! We get the kids to bed, grab some dessert and connect about crucial decisions we need to make for our family. We review our budget, calendar, bring up any new opportunities to discuss, even take time to dream and vision cast when time allows. While some weeks may be more of a quick “touch base” and others take detailed planning, we now have routine we can rely on. Not only has this strengthened our focus as a family but it has strengthened our marriage. Taking the time to discuss your life vision as well as mission as a family is priceless. I highly recommend taking the Focus Course with your spouse!

Would you recommend this course to othrs?

Yes. Whether you’re a high level executive who is managing hundreds of employees, an entrepreneur with too many ideas and too little time, or a stay at home mom who can’t remember your own hopes and dreams but can name every single character on Sesame Street… I highly recommend the Focus Course. You will not only gain tremendous insight and tools to navigate this journey but will gain a new friend in Shawn Blanc to have in your corner, cheering you on.

Today’s interview is part of my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on Tuesday, June 23.

Every single person who went through the pilot course and provided feedback said that The Focus Course had a positive impact on them, and that they learned about the things they were wanting to learn about and they saw change in the areas they were hoping.

Procrastination Guide

In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Also, I’ll send you my free ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, that has been downloaded by nearly 7,000 people.

An Interview With Tyler Soenen

Tyler Soenen was one of 90 pilot members who took an early version of The Focus Course this past spring.

Tyler and Kristen

Tyler and his wife Kristen

It was an honor to have Tyler as part of that early group because he is pretty much my ideal target market for the course: Tyler is a project manager at a large company and also has a strong bend toward creativity. While he has a lot of autonomy at his job, there are still the challenges that come with corporate bureaucracy and working with people who don’t all necessarily care about doing work that matters and living with integrity.

Moreover, Tyler has long been a “productivity student” so to speak. Before even taking the course, he had already read many productivity and goal-setting books and tried out other systems and methodologies, including Getting Things Done by David Allen, Zen to Done by Leo Babauta, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, What’s Best Next by Matt Perman, and The One Thing by Gary Keller. (All awesome books, btw.)

Throughout the pilot course, Tyler provided invaluable feedback (as did many of the other pilot members). And so, afterward, I asked Tyler some questions about his specific challenges related to focus, what his thoughts are about doing work that matters, and how the course impacted him.

* * *

Shawn: What is your biggest challenge related to focus?

Tyler: My biggest challenge related to focus has been maintaining clarity on what’s most important in my life, and also being fiercely committed to that. In a day where information, priority, and urgency come at me from multiple directions in a short span of time, it’s always a fight to keep clarity in the midst of all of the competing elements of life.

What does the idea of work / life balance mean to you?

I like to think of these two topics as interwoven and integrated.

Work should be what your life is about, but there are different expressions of it. Work is taking care of your house, relationally investing into your family members, your church community, at your actual place of vocation by doing the best that you can to serve the very next person that you hand the product of your work to (whether that be a phone call, a spreadsheet, a presentation, a solved problem).

The ratio of work/life balance look different for each person according to their values and season of life. My aim (although I am very aware of my weakness to execute the vision) is to maximize my capability to serve others in my life and to use my opportunities for rest as a time to recharge my life so I can better achieve my aim of serving others.

You told me that you’ve already read quite a few books about productivity and have tried different systems and methodologies before. How was the Focus Course different than what you’ve learned in the past?

The books I’ve read tell you about the theory of how to use a hammer to hit a nail. For example, if you’ve ever read read Getting Things Done, it’s easy to think “Ahhhhh! Oh my gosh, there’s so much to do! I have to clarify all of my 50,000 ft objectives, set up my tickler system, clarify my 10,000 ft goals — it’s so much.” And that thought makes it overwhelming to actually put all of it to practice — you’ve learned the theory, but you’re not sure how to do anything about it.

Did the daily tasks that accompany the course help to make the teaching sink in?

Absolutely. What I liked about it is that it forced me to put words on paper, and perform the actions as I was learning the theory (reiterating what I was saying before). This also helped pace performing the actions.

As I mentioned before, when I’ve studied other books, the can be overwhelming to actually put in to practice. I learned the theory, but it’s not always clear how to do anything about it.

Your course, however, did the work for me in this area by taking that variable out of play. I just focused on doing what you told me to do and I learned from it. (Which, by the way, that’s why we usually pay for courses. And this course does that.)

What this left me with was 40 days of learning about the philosophy related to focus, doing work that matters, and having a healthy work / life balance. And at the same time I was learning from the experiences that came from completing the daily assignments. The course forces you to beat the resistance (as Pressfield says) and do the work. The result is that you learn so much more because you’ve actually done the work and tasted the fruit that so many of the books talk about.

This was huge for me, because in all of the reading I’ve done, the The Focus Course had something original that was very beneficial to my own life: the integration and union of having daily lifestyle practices that tie in to our ‘short- and long-term goals. You defined this paradigm in such a way that makes it possible to feel like I was achieving success daily by completing activities that are aligned with my own values, but at the same time using these activities to complete a short-term / long-term quantitative goal.

What was the most challenging aspect of the course for you?

I have to say, the most challenging aspect was sticking with it.

Being an American in our drive-thru-mentality society, I wanted to see awesome results just 5 days in. Sticking with 40 days of actions is difficult.

But when is the last time you’ve done something you’re really proud of in just a few days? In my experience it’s the difficult yet mundane tasks (and you talk about this, Shawn) that produce tons of fruit in the long haul. You just have to be willing to have the grit to follow through. I though you did such a great job at breaking things down and making them as simple as possible.

What was your favorite aspect of the course?

The integration and marriage of the ‘Daily Lifestyle Practices’ and ‘Short Term and Long Term Goals.’ As I said, in all of the reading that I’ve done, I think this is original and very beneficial to my own life.

In my experience reading a lot of productivity books out there, they either focus on the “now” and express that “there are no goals,” or they focus on goals alone and the achievement of these goals.

I’ve found if you focus on the “now” alone, you lose heart because of a lack of vision for where you’re going in life. And on the other side of that, if you are constantly completing and re-signing-up for goals, you never feel like you have success day to day.

You took both of these ideas and forged them into a singular convergent idea that can be deployed on a daily basis and that brings vision for the future, Yet it’s also something that is practical and simple enough to complete in 24 hours that aligns with your core values.

This was so helpful to me and was by far my favorite thing about the course.

Who do you think this course is for?

This course really could be for anyone. Every person is doing creative work somehow. If you have a choice on how you’re going to go about your day, your relationships, your vocation, etc. then this course is applicable to you. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, a horse rancher in Wyoming, or a broker in New York, I believe this course will not disappoint because it’s aligned with fundamental truths that we all benefit from.

Today’s interview is a part of my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23.

Every single person who went through the pilot and provided feedback said that The Focus Course had a positive impact on them, and that they learned about the things they were wanting to learn about and they saw change in the areas they were hoping.

Over the weekend I’ll be sharing some more stories and testimonies of those who’ve already taken the course and how it impacted their life.

Procrastination Guide

In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Also, I’ll send you my free ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, that has been downloaded by nearly 7,000 people.


Every now and then an idea just hits you like a ton of bricks.

Have you ever experienced that?

You’re reading something, or listening to something, or driving to work and thinking about nothing in particular, but then a couple of dots connect in your head and kapow!

As I’m writing this, I’ve got one particular idea in mind that I want to share. Something that connected for me several years ago and has had a profound effect on me ever since.

It’s the idea of living like nobody else.

I first heard this phrase 10 years ago when my wife and I were newlyweds.

We were young and living on a humble missionary salary. I brought several thousand dollars of consumer debt to the marriage because when I was single I’d owned a truck that I didn’t know how to stop buying things for.

During our first six months of marriage, we focused very intently on getting our finances in order. We read Dave Ramsey’s book, and that helped us tremendously with getting a budget and building the courage to tackle our debt.

Something Dave Ramsey says repeatedly in his book is that if you will live like nobody else, later you can live like nobody else.

His point is that it’s time to stop living like a child. Assess your own life and be mature and intentional about how you spend your finances.

He writes about how so many lower- and middle-class Americans try to live as if they were millionaires: driving new and expensive cars, living in large homes, eating at fancy restaurants, etc.

However, most real millionaires actually live like middle-class (this is what the book The Millionaire Next Door is all about). The average millionaire’s annual household much lower than you may think (around $150K). However, since they live far beneath their means, they pay with cash, and they invest early and often, they’ve accumulated enough wealth to be worth $1,000,000 or more.

* * *

This metric of living differently than most people goes far beyond just how you spend your money. It’s also an excellent metric for how to spend your time, energy, and attention.

I love how my friend Aaron Mahnke said it just yesterday in a tweet:

Lifestyle creep and workflow creep put a ceiling on our potential. They rob us of our much-needed resources of time, money, and energy.

Coming back, this is the idea I wanted to share with you today. The idea of living like nobody else. Of being careful of lifestyle and workflow creep (especially when it’s rooted in dissatisfaction).

Did you know…?

  • The average American spends 5 hours or more watching television and 2 hours on social media every day.
  • The average retiree at age 65 has only enough in savings to pay for less than 2 years worth of living expenses.
  • One of the most common regrets of the dying is that they worked too hard and neglected their relationships, values, and even their own happiness.
  • And who knows how many men and women have a dream to start a business, write a novel, paint a painting, or build something meaningful, but never try.

Unless our hope is in the lottery, it’s a logical impossibility that we can waste our money and end up wealthy. The same is true for our time and attention.

As I’ve written about before, unfortunately, most of us aren’t surrounded by focused and successful individuals who can set an example for us and remind us to keep on keeping on. We have few examples of intentional and considered living. However, we probably have plenty of examples of how to watch TV, check Facebook, and live above our means.

What then if you lived like nobody else?

  • Don’t spend hours each day watching television or scrolling through social networks.
  • Don’t let your work life dominate over family time, personal values, or happiness.
  • Don’t ignore the importance of investing over the long-run and planning for the future.
  • Live as far below your means as is reasonable, and don’t derive your happiness or self-worth by the fanciness of the things you own.
  • Don’t let laziness or busywork keep you from building something meaningful.
  • Don’t assume you need a better tool in order to do better work.

It’s funny. Simply doing the opposite of what most people do can actually open up many opportunities for you to do meaningful work.

* * *

It’s hard to change. We fear it. We get overwhelmed by all the areas we want to see change in. We get paralyzed by the options for how we could change. Or we’ve been there and done that, and since it didn’t work out that one time we’ve thrown in the towel for good.

Here’s the truth: You can change.

When Anna married me, I was an habitual spender. For years had been living paycheck to paycheck; I had thousands of dollars in consumer debt and no real grasp on how to consistently live within my means. But now we meet with and counsel others who are in debt and struggling to keep their finances under control, and we help them make changes to their spending habits.

* * *

I realize that this all sounds so serious. Like we’re still little kids who don’t know how to behave. Hey, you! Watch less TV. Turn off Facebook. Do your homework.

Yes. It is serious. But that’s because it matters. It’s also awesome and fun. Getting ahold of your life is liberating to say the least.

Of course, the choice is yours to make.

Ask yourself if you would prefer to be up-to-date on all the latest TV shows and summer movies, or if you want to create something every day?

Do you want to stay in the loop with the lives of your Facebook friends, or do you want to help your kids build a fort or do their homework?

Do you want to squeeze in one more thing at the office, or do you want to go on a date with your spouse?

Now, I realize all these options aren’t continually at odds with one another — they’re not mutually exclusive. And it’s not that TV, Facebook, and late nights at the office are always “bad” all of the time.

Life is a messy, zig-and-zag balancing act. Rarely, if ever, is it a state of perfect harmony.

I’m being dramatic to make a point. Because I know that in my own life, and in the lives of my close friends and family, if we aren’t careful and intentional then over time the natural trajectory of life begins to move downward.

Focus, diligence, relationships, wealth, art — anything at all that is worth pursuing — is a moving target.

And we are guaranteed to face resistance when we take that path of doing our best creative work, living a healthy and awesome life, and building meaningful relationships.

In short, if you want to watch more TV, the universe won’t bother you. If you want to do work that matters, it’s going to be a fight.

* * *

Today’s article is the fourth in my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23.

For me, this one is perhaps one of the most personal yet. To be transparent, I am extremely passionate about keeping that healthy balance where I’m able to do my best creative work while also having thriving relationships with my close friends and family. It’s top-of-mind for me pretty much every single day.

If this article hits home for you as well, then I believe you will love the course.

As I wrote above, you can get breakthrough. You can do work that matters, build momentum in your personal integrity, establish habits that stick, bring a healthy balance between your work and personal life.

And the Focus Course can be the secret weapon to help you get moving in that direction. The course leads you along a path that starts out simple and fun and culminates in deep and lasting impact.

I hope you’ll consider taking a chance on yourself and signing up for the Focus Course this coming Tuesday.

Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some stories and testimonies of those who’ve already taken the course and how it impacted their life.

Procrastination Guide

In the meantime, if you’d like to sign up for my newsletter you’ll be the first to know when The Focus Course becomes available next week. Also, I’ll send you my free ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, that has been downloaded by nearly 7,000 people.

The Jolt

My life changed forever when my wife and I had our first child.

Becoming a dad was one of the most incredible and defining moments of my entire life. In fact, I’d say fatherhood is perhaps the most prominent milestone marker of my life. That my life is divided into two parts: before I was a dad and after.

But there’s more to the story.

Before our first son, Noah, was even born I decided to quit my job and try to work from home and write for a living.

It was Christmastime in 2010. My wife and I were having dinner after returning from Colorado. We had just gone through a deeply challenging loss in our family and out of that Anna and I began talking about having kids.

The jolt of the personal tragedy combined with the excitement of starting a family brought my whole life into slow motion. Things that were so important at the time suddenly seemed meaningless. Things that were once side passions now seemed immensely important. So many of my “priorities” got completely uprooted.

I knew that it was time to quit my job of 10 years and try my hand at something new.

Sometimes You Need a Jolt to Help You Make a Choice

It sounds so “bold” — to quit my job on the cusp of starting a family — but it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. And once I made the choice to quit my job and to start writing my website as my new full-time gig, everything else fell into place.

Do not underestimate the power of decisiveness and action.

Decisiveness brings motivation for action. Action brings clarity. And clarity helps us make future decisions.

* * *

Long-time readers of this site will know just how much I love to geek out over things. I will spend hours and hours researching something to death. I love it. It’s fun; it’s play

For example: A few years ago I bought way too many keyboards and used them, tested them, recorded the sound they make when clicking, and studied how the different key switches actuate.

But sometimes my need to hyper-research and test something can be dangerous. In my office I still use an uncomfortable chair because I’ve never made time to do a deep dive research on “just the right” ergonomic chair for me.

When I want to make a change in my life, or when I want to invest in something that I know will be a critical part of my everyday life, I can obsess over it. Researching, thinking, and talking with people about it. It can literally take me months or years to make a decision (if ever).

My love for learning about and sweating the details is one of my greatest strengths. But it can also be a weakness.

Part of the reason I leave a note out for myself is because if I didn’t then I might never get any writing done. There are times when I need to be told what to do — times when I am paralyzed by decision. But then, once I’ve begun moving, then the action brings with it so much clarity.

Action brings clarity.

* * *

Here’s a story.

A little over a year ago that I finally began running. I’d been putting it off for years because I wanted to do “the best” workout routine possible. What would have the maximum impact in the shortest time with the least effort? Ugh.

One day I realized that if I didn’t just start doing something — anything — then I may never start.

So I did the easiest thing I could do:

  1. I bought a Couch to 5K running app that literally told me what to do. All I had to do was listen and follow the instructions.

  2. I went to a store where they analyze your gait and help you get the right running shoes. They were only a bit more expensive than just going to a factory shoe store, but the extra cost was worth it for me because I didn’t have to think and research shoes. I let someone else help me and it took less than an hour.

And then, I came home and started running.

Starting simple and allowing someone else to tell me what to do removed a huge barrier of activation energy. And now, a year later, I’m still running regularly.

* * *

Sometimes it takes a tragedy or other type of wake-up call to give us the push we need to get moving. Other times, we need to shut up and let someone else tell us what to do so we can just get started already.

In part, that’s exactly what The Focus Course is. It’s like “Couch to 5K” but for doing your best creative work and getting your life in shape.

Do you need a Couch to 5K app in order to start running? Not really.

Likewise, could you go on your own to get clarity on the principles and action items found within the Focus Course? Most likely. In fact, I have nothing to hide here: I’ve listed out all of the books, articles, podcasts, white papers, and other resources I read as part of my research to create The Focus Course.

What makes The Focus Course so valuable is how approachable it is.

The course starts out simple, easy, and fun. And over 40 days the course builds on itself so that by the end you’ve seen significant progress and change and have actually done something.

Peter Drucker says that “the greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”

Knowledge alone is not enough to create lasting change. Which is why The Focus Course is about more than just head knowledge — it’s an introduction to experiential knowledge.

Without any hyperbole, I mean it when I say that The Focus Course can change your life.

Every single person who went through the pilot of the course and provided feedback said that The Focus Course had a positive impact on them, and that they learned about the things they were wanting to learn about and they saw change in the areas they were hoping.

* * *

However, I’m not just here to try and convince you of the power of the Focus Course.

I’m also using it as an example to encourage you that not every decision or project should be researched to death.

If there is something you’re putting off because you think you need to research it more, consider if it’d be better to just start now with the easiest point of activation. And then, let your experiential knowledge bring clarity about what to do next.

Something I have learned — that is still a struggle for me, honestly — is that sometimes I just need to start. Oftentimes what I call “research” or “prudence” is actually just procrastination.

Procrastination left unchecked will gain momentum. The longer you put something off the easier it becomes to keep putting off.

I’m still learning to listen to my gut and to make a choice about something quickly. And I’m learning not to despise setting small goals, trusting the advice of others, starting simple, and making incremental progress.

* * *

Today’s article is a part of my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23. If this post hit home for you, then I believe you will love the course.

One of the primary goals of The Focus Course is to lead you along a path that starts as simple and fun and then culminates in something with deep and lasting impact. Check it out:

The Focus Course

You Have Ideas

What you need is more bad ideas.

You know the drill. It’s late in the morning on Saturday and you’re outside mowing the lawn.

Or maybe you don’t mow the lawn. So, say it’s a Monday evening and you’re taking a walk through the neighborhood. Or it’s Tuesday morning and you’re taking a shower.

And then… bam! You have an idea. Seemingly out of nowhere.

Awesome. But why aren’t you having more ideas in more places?

I think we put far too much emphasis on the when, where, why, and how of good ideas. We should talk more about the when, where, why, and how of bad ideas.

We all need to have more bad ideas. More crappy first drafts. More embarrassing design mock ups. More failures. More awkward moments.

Something I mentioned in my article yesterday was about how this world we now live in, where everyone has the internet in their pocket, is totally new. Nobody has ever lived like this before.

One of the things that comes with having the internet in our pocket is that we can share moments and slices of our life with the world. But most of us are sharing the highlights. We share the best photos of the grandest places. Which is fine. But it also can cause a slight sense of disillusionment.

Gee, everyone I follow on Instagram lives in the mountains or on the beach and eats incredible food. I live in the suburbs and had a tunafish sandwich for lunch.

When we see other people’s beautiful Instagram lives and fine-tuned Pinterest taste, we think they live like that 24/7.

It can be challenging when we start to overlap the perfect and curated “world” we see through our smartphones and the messy and challenging world we live through our own eyes and skin.

That’s why you need to have more bad ideas.

Ideas are good for the soul. They’re good for your creative imagination. They’re brain food. They help you build motivation. But it’s not just good ideas that build motivation — bad ideas do this too.

When was the last time you had a real whopper of a terrible idea?

You’re probably embarrassed to even recall. As if having a bad idea is the same as farting during a fancy dinner.

It’s not the same; not the same at all. We need bad ideas. You need bad ideas.

Out of ten thousand ideas, only one of them might be truly great. If you sit around waiting for the great one, how are you going to get it? And then (well, this is a topic for another post, but what I’m trying to say is that) once you have a great idea, that’s only the very beginning — doing something about it is what matters most.

How to Strengthen Your Creative Imagination

So here you are. Standing at a place that is “Not Amazing” and you’re trying to get over there to “Amazing”. There is no shortcut except to go through the mud of “Not Yet Amazing.”

I want to have more bad ideas, more terrible first drafts, more embarrassing design mock ups, more failures, and more awkward moments.

While that may sound like the worst Christmas List ever, what it actually means is that I want to try harder and have less fear of failure. More bad ideas, more terrible first drafts, and more failed attempts, means more work created.

All that said, here are some thoughts about ideas, and why I think you should try and come up with more (bad) ideas every day.

Ideas are a commodity

If you think ideas are rare it’s because you’re not used to coming up with any.

The more ideas you come up with then the more ideas you’ll come up with. I love how Jonas Ellison put it:

Never be stingy with your ideas. Don’t say you’ll save them for another post, another story, another day. Put it out there. Circulate your ideas freely so your mind can generate new.


Since ideas (especially bad ones) are a dime a dozen, there’s no fear in giving them away and sharing them early and often. In fact, a bad idea in your hands might be a great idea in someone else’s. That’s because…

People are Greater Than Ideas

In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull writes about how people are far more important than ideas. Saying:

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better. The takeaway here is worth repeating: Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.

Catmull also writes about how ideas are not singularly, perfectly-formed things. They’re half-thoughts. What-ifs, hunches, gut feelings, whispers of a dream, foggy afternoons.

That’s why…

A Bad Idea Does Not Reflect Your Talent, Character, or Taste

If you’re in an environment where you are afraid to share a bad idea, you need to change that environment. Don’t despise your own bad ideas and don’t despise other people’s.

We put so much emphasis on only having good ideas that we’ve assumed this posture where all ideas should be acted on. That’s silly. Just because you’ve had an idea doesn’t mean it now must be cared for and built.

Feel free to have lots and lots of horrible ideas and then throw them out. Give yourself freedom to have bad ideas. Give everyone you know — your friends, family, co-workers, bosses, peers, strangers you meet while standing in line at the coffee shop — permission to have bad ideas.

In fact, why not just…

Start With the Worst Idea You Can

I dare you.

Seriously, why not?

What is it you’re stuck on right now? What is the worst possible solution to that problem?

Coming up with a bad idea is so much easier than coming up with a good one. Start with the worst idea you can and let that build your momentum.

Bad ideas become the stepping stones to good ideas.

As you get more comfortable coming up with many ideas all of the time, you’ll learn to adapt this very important rule, which is…

Don’t be a Slave to the Tyranny of a New Idea

Ever feel like you have more ideas than time? I hope you do.

Having too many ideas is not a dilemma. The dilemma is to have no ideas at all.

We think having more ideas than time is a dilemma because new ideas are exciting, and we feel obligated to act on them and do something about them.

Don’t feel obligated. It’s okay to let good ideas die. You don’t have to act on every idea you come up with. Don’t give in to the tyranny of a new idea simply because it’s new.

As I said, and as I’m sure you are aware, there is something more important than coming up with ideas: finishing them.

If you have more ideas than time, that’s great. Focus on what you can do now. Believe me when I say that…

Great Ideas Come Back

Last fall (October 2014) we completely re-designed and re-booted the Tools & Toys website. I brainstormed with my team, worked with our designer/developer (Pat Dryburgh), and we made something awesome.

About 5 months later I stumbled across a page in my notebook from almost two years ago. On the page was a list of goals and ideas for Tools & Toys, and the list was filled with the exact same outline of goals and ideas that we’d just implemented. I had written it, forgot about it, and two years later when I was starting over “from scratch” those ideas came right back and I didn’t even know it.

But two years can be a long time to wait on an idea. Sometimes an idea won’t let you go. You know the ones I’m talking about. And so, in those cases, try to act quickly because…

Ideas Demise Over Time

When an idea truly grabs ahold of you, keeps you up at night, and wakes you up early in the morning, then it’s time to take action.

You know what I’m talking about. If and when you can, act on those best ideas quickly. When they grab ahold of you like that, it means they’ve got life on them.

When an idea has life on it like that…

Listen to What Your Idea Wants

Eventually the idea will take over. It will begin to think for itself. It will have its own needs and wants.

Listen to it. What does it want? What other ideas are branching out from this original one?

This happened to me as I was writing my book, The Power of a Focused Life. I spent 5 months writing the first draft. Then as I was doing research and working on the second draft I realized that this idea wanted to be different than what I originally imagined.

In response, I turned the book upside down, pulled it all apart, and re-wrote everything from scratch to create The Focus Course instead.

I never would have built the Focus Course if I hadn’t first started with the book. I needed to be in the midst of that project before I could see where it was ultimately headed.

It’s a rule of the universe of creativity that…

Action Brings Clarity

Once you start moving and acting on an idea, then you begin to get clarity about what the next step needs to be. It’s okay not to have it all figured out before you begin. Just begin, and let your feet take you.

Challenge: Come up with 5 ideas today

Or 7 if you’ve had your coffee; 10 if you’re feeling brave.

Below I’m sharing with you my 10 ideas for today. This is a list that is building off another idea I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while about doing a bunch of podcast miniseries that each focus on a very specific topic. Here are 10 topic ideas:

  • Kansas City coffee shop reviews
  • Short stories about inspirational and fascinating people
  • Working from home
  • Debt and budgeting
  • Writing
  • Meaningful Productivity
  • Photography
  • Making coffee at home
  • Book reviews
  • Parenting

* * *

The ability to solve interesting problems is an integral part of doing our best creative work. And doing work that matters means having the guts to try things that might not work.

If we’re a slave to every single new idea then we’ll never have the focus to finish a single thing. And if we’re afraid that our idea might be a bad one, we’ll never even get started.

* * *

Today’s article is a part of my countdown to The Focus Course, which launches on June 23. If today’s article hit home for you, then I believe you will love the course. One of the primary goals of the Focus Course is to help you strengthen your creative imagination, find margin for thought, and do your best creative work.

The Focus Course

Living Without Regret in the Age of Distraction

It took us over a century to realize the changes and impact that the Industrial Revolution was making on our lifestyle, culture, economy, and educational system.

Technology has changed all of that again, but this time it took less than a decade.

Today, if we need advice on a topic, it’s as close as posting a question to Facebook or Twitter. If we don’t know an answer, we can Google it. If we want something, we can buy it from our phones and have it delivered to our house. If we have a moment of down time, our social network timelines guarantee we never have to be bored. And we have the world’s catalog of movies, music, and books available to us from our living room.

Nobody in the history of anything has ever lived like this before. It’s fantastic. Also, it’s a little bit terrifying.

There aren’t any experts in these fields any more. We’re all guessing about what’s next for education, the economy, communication, media, our jobs, our art, and our families.

Diligence, focus, art, parenting, marriage, priorities, work culture, and time management have always been moving targets. How much more now that we’re always connected thanks to the internet that lives in our pocket?

* * *

With time and focus being such precious commodities, it is all the more important to have a vision for our life and to run with it. Use it as a path for our creative work and as a guardrail for how we spend our time and energy.

So often I get this feeling that I can live however I want, in the moment, and over the long run everything will pan out for me. Something whispers to me that I needn’t worry about hard work, focus, planning, or diligence because one day my ship will come in and all the important things will just happen.

Alas, that is not how real life works. Those things don’t just happen all by themselves simply because I want them to. They happen through vision, planning, and a lot of hard work.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that “human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”

* * *

The dreams of our heart will not come to be through magic or luck. They are forged little by little, day by day. The most meaningful things in our lives are produced from the ground up with much focus and diligence.

Too much attention on the big, long-term goals and we despise the little daily steps needed to make progress. But too much focus on the granular, and it can be easy to feel like the “urgent” things are most important.

How do you reconcile these two vantage points? How do you have an eye for the long-term while also focusing on what’s most important right now? Why is big-picture planning so important to helping us navigate the small successes and failures we have every day?

If you know what it is you’re moving toward, then you can slice that down into something small and actionable every day. You can define “important work” as something that moves the needle forward rather than something that is merely urgent in the moment.

Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. As I wrote in my article about fighting to stay creative, a clear goal is a significant stimulator for creativity.

Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. We get frustrated at ambiguity and indecisiveness in the work place, why do we tolerate it in our own life as well? Overcoming this is often as simple as taking time to define an end goal and then taking the first step toward that goal.

Another significant stimulator for creativity is diligence. And diligence, well, it isn’t a personality type — diligence is a skill we learn.

Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done.

This, my friends, is why the Focus Course is so helpful. Half of the course — 20 days worth — is spent on the foundations of clarity and action. Where you define your goals and distill them to daily lifestyle practices. It will change your life to have a daily habit or two that contributes to your quality of life and that also move you forward in the things that matter.

The Focus Course doesn’t force or assume any methodology or system. Nor does it impose a particular schedule or routine. Rather, the course guides you through finding answers and clarity on your own. You also learn about and strengthen your own foundational character traits, such as personal integrity, creative imagination, self-efficacy, gratitude, and more.

You can live without regret in the age of distraction. You can change your attitudes and behaviors. You can raise your children in the midst of a Smartphone Generation. You can spend your time doing work that matters.

While The Focus Course will have the most impact the first time you go through it, it’s actually designed to be done once per year. It’s not something you consume once; something you graduate from and move on. Rather it’s meant to be a tool that you use over and over. That’s why you get lifetime access when you join.

As I said earlier in this article, diligence, focus, art, and entrepreneurship are all moving targets. You need a tool — a secret weapon as it were — to help you hit those targets and have fun in the process.

* * *

The Focus Course launches on June 23, and this article is the first in a countdown to the course. If today’s article hit home for you, then I believe you will love the course. Check it out:

The Focus Course

Countdown to The Focus Course

The Focus Course launches in just 9 days.

This course is unlike anything else out there that I know of.

Tyler Soenen is an engineer and project manager, and was one of my pilot members. He told me that compared to all of the productivity and life-focus-centric reading he’d done, The Focus Course has something original.

I am excited. Also, nervous. Very, very nervous. But the nerves and frightful anticipation are what tell me I’m doing something worthwhile.

5 Modules. 40 days. 75,000 words. 20 videos. A members-only forum. And more.

I have spent thousands of hours writing, researching, and architecting the content of this course. I’ve poured myself into building something that is professional, delightful, informative, fun, unique, and, most of all, very impactful.

Jaclynn Braden, a photographer and designer, who was another one of the pilot members, said that the course’s ability to combine deep introspection with applicable exercises is brilliant.

This course is so much more than ideas and principles that leave you, the reader, on your own to decipher and implement. Rather, The Focus Course is built on a foundation of action where you learn by doing. And yet it still has a massive amount of theory and training to support the why behind the what. I’m confident that the contents and value of the course are well worth the investment to take it.

If you’ve been tracking with the writing I’ve been doing here over the past year, you’ll know that I’ve written many articles out of the overflow of my work to build the content for The Focus Course. For these articles as well as my ebook, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, the feedback has been fantastic.

Here is a brief list of just a few of the articles I’ve published over the past several months:

If any of these past articles have been helpful, encouraging, or inspirational to you then I hope you’ll consider the immense value found in The Focus Course. As I said, I cannot wait for it to launch.

Starting Monday and leading up to the launch, I’m going to be publishing a new article every day in a Countdown to The Focus Course.

Each article is along the topics of creativity, integrity, and focus that are so prevalent within the course itself. And some article will be for telling the practical and interesting behind-the-scenes story about why I made the course, what sets it apart, and what the feedback has been from the early pilot members.

If you have any questions you’d like me to answer (about the course itself, or along the topics of the course) please don’t hesitate to ask. You can email me directly, or ping me on Twitter.

Talk to you soon,

— Shawn


Hybrid GTD System of Analog and Digital

Long-time readers of this site will know that I’ve been a hard and fast OmniFocus user for almost five years now. However, for more than a year, I’ve actually been using a hybrid system for my task management: combining both digital and analog in my everyday juggling act.

If you’re familiar with the Eisenhower / Covey Matrix then you know all about Urgent vs Important. Of course, you don’t have to be familiar with the Urgent/Important Matrix to know that many tasks are urgent but that doesn’t mean they’re important. And, how often does the truly important work we need to do sit quietly for us to act on it, instead of crying out for our attention?

Being able to define and then act upon what it is that is most important for us to do is a skill indeed.

And for me, I believe the reason I’ve settled into using a hybrid system of both paper and digital is because it serves me well in my pursuit to show up every day and do my most important work.

For digital, I use OmniFocus. And for analog I have a Baron Fig notebook and Signo DX 0.38mm pen. These two tools each serve as the different storehouses for the different quadrants of urgent and important.1

In general, my most important activities for the day are written down in my Baron Fig notebook — and almost always they are written down the day before.

OmniFocus is where I keep anything with a due date, as well as all the other administrative miscellany of my job. OmniFocus is for work that is important but not Most Important. Like many of you, I suspect, I’m at my computer for the bulk of my working hours. Thus, virtually all of the incoming tasks I need to capture are of the digital kind: they deal with emails, bills, invoices, website edits, servers, files, graphics, etc. And OmniFocus is great for this (as would be any digital task management app worth its salt).

I break up my day with writing and important-but-not-urgent tasks in the morning followed by administrative and other tasks in the afternoon. Or, in other words, I spend the first half of my day with the Baron Fig and the second half with OmniFocus.

There’s no reason I couldn’t just keep everything in OmniFocus or in the Baron Fig.2 But I like this hybrid approach.

There is something concrete to the act of using a pen to write down my most important tasks onto a piece of paper. And there’s something ever-so-slightly less distracting about coming downstairs and having a notebook open and waiting, listing out in my own handwriting what it is I need to get to straight away.

When I open up OmniFocus, as awesome as it is, it’s still full of buttons and colors and widgets and options. While these can be minimized (something I love about OF), I’m still an incessant fiddler and the last thing I need is something to fiddle with when I’m supposed to be writing.

  1. There is a third tool — my Day One journal — where I log the things I made progress on each day. But that’s a different topic for a different day.
  2. The Bullet Journal is a method that’s designed to make a paper journal more usable and versatile.

The Note

When I sit down at my desk in the morning, it’s time to write.

There is hot coffee to the left of my keyboard. My keyboard, well, it’s about as clicky and awesome as they come. I put in my earbuds, hit play on the soundtrack, and set a 30 minute timer.

My phone is in Do Not Disturb mode. So is my computer. The outside world can wait. For the next half hour I’m pushing the cursor.

This is my writing routine.

It sounds a bit regimented, but I’ve become a believer in the routine. Having a set time and place for doing my most important work is genius. I used to write when I felt like it — at some point during the day I’d hope to write something. Who knows when it would be or what the topic would be (I certainly did’t).

Now, I write at 7:30am. If I don’t feel like it, too bad. I can at least suffer through 30 minutes of mud. But what’s wild is that most days it takes just 5 or 10 minutes for the writing to start feeling pretty good. Or, if the writing sucks, at least the calm of it being just my coffee and my words begins to take over and even if I’m not feeling in the zone, I at least feel comfortable putting my thoughts down.

This is my time to write without inhibition. I’ll have the whole rest of the day to edit and re-write and figure out what I was trying to say. But for a writer, the hardest part is that initial step. To put the words together in the first place.

By giving myself no room for wiggling around or making excuses, I’ve found that having this set time to write means I actually write more than if I were to wait only for inspiration to strike. I write more words in general (usually 1,500 words every day) than days when I wait for inspiration. And my writing is of a higher quality — my crappy first drafts are much less crappy.

And, though my timer is set for 30 minutes, more often than not by the time the half-hour is up, I’m firing on all cylinders and I will continue to write for another hour or three.

As someone who writes for a living, I cannot think of anything more important for me to do each day than to actually write.

I’m 33, and I’ve been writing part-time since I was in my mid-20s and full-time since I was 29. If I don’t write, I don’t eat. But more than that, if I don’t write for too long then I get fidgety and idle.

I’m already thinking about ways I can better improve my daily writing routine. Right now I rarely write on the weekends and I can totally feel it on Monday mornings — not only am I starving to write by Monday, but I feel rusty when I do. Imagine that, after just two days off I can tell a difference.

This morning is a Thursday. And the writing feels great.

Maybe it’s the weather. It’s cloudy and drizzly outside: the perfect weather for writing. But I’ve also had all week to write, and I’m riding the momentum from the days gone by already and it serves me well.

But there’s one more thing…

The Note

When I sit down at my desk, coffee and keyboard ready to go, there is something else.

There, waiting for me on top of my desk and in front of my computer, is a handwritten note.

It’s the note I wrote to myself yesterday evening when the day was done.

The note says one thing. Today it says: “My Digital / Analog System”

500 words ago, I lied to you. I said my writing begins at 7:30 every morning.

The truth is that my writing for this morning began yesterday when I put that note on my desk. That note is my topic for the day. That note is the single most important element of my personal productivity system. Because that note is the single most important thing I have to do today.

* * *

Distractions, diversions, oddities, and excuses to procrastinate are aplenty. I want to cut all of them off at the pass so I can have the time and space to do my best creative work every single day.

And The Note is a critical component to that.

Writing down the topic that I’m going to write about tomorrow gives me a few advantages:

  1. It gives my subconscious a 12-hour head start. The well of my writing mind gets the whole night to fill itself up with what it wants to say on the topic. I don’t have to be anxious and keep it at the front of my mind, wasting my time and energy thinking about. Tomorrow is when I will write about it.

  2. Thus, when it comes time to write, I have all my energy at my disposal. When I sit down to write, I haven’t yet spent any of my willpower on trying to muster up an idea, or comb through a list of possibilities, or scour the internet looking for inspiration. It’s time to write and I am not desperate. Nor am I lost, dazed, or confused.

    I am clear. I know exactly what to write about because it’s there before me. All that’s left is for me to open up my writing program and to write.

“Here, Shawn, write about this,” I tell myself. And so I do.

Sometimes the most creative, inspired, productive thing you can do is try to be as lazy as possible while still showing up to do the work.

If I finish in one day then I will publish it. If not, I will come back and keep working tomorrow. Or sometimes, if it’s horrible, I’ll just put it away and at least I did my writing for the day. But no matter what, at least I’ve had a small victory: I’ve written something.

The premise of today’s article actually touches on four ideas:

  1. Doing something today that will make life for my future self a little bit easier.
  2. Having a daily habit that centers around doing my best creative work.
  3. Having the deep personal integrity needed to show up and do the work even when I’m not inspired or motivated.
  4. Celebrating the small victories.

Just recently, I got an email from a reader, Elisha, sharing with me about how many of us know we need to make change in our lives, and often we even know what things specifically need to be changed. But for so many, he said, the biggest challenge is actually getting off our rear-ends and doing something and actually being disciplined.

If the ideas in today’s article hit home for you, then I believe you will love my online course,The Power of a Focused Life. And if you can relate to the email I got from Elisha then the Focus Course will serve you well.

The Focus Course

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